NASA has logged another extraterrestrial first on its latest mission to Mars: converting carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into pure, breathable oxygen, the US space agency says.
The unprecedented extraction of oxygen, literally out of thin air on Mars, was achieved Tuesday by an experimental device aboard Perseverance, a six-wheeled science rover that landed on the Red Planet on February 18 after a seven-month journey from Earth.
In its first activation, the toaster-sized instrument dubbed MOXIE, short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment, produced about 5g of oxygen, equivalent to roughly 10 minutes worth of breathing for an astronaut, NASA said.
Although the initial output was modest, the feat marked the first experimental extraction of a natural resource from the environment of another planet for direct use by humans.
“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement on Wednesday.
She called it the first technology of its kind to help future missions “live off the land” of another planet.
The instrument works through electrolysis, which uses extreme heat to separate oxygen atoms from molecules of carbon dioxide, which accounts for about 95 per cent of the atmosphere on Mars.
The remaining 5 per cent of Mars’ atmosphere, which is only about 1 per cent as dense as Earth’s, consists primarily of molecular nitrogen and argon.
Oxygen exists on Mars in negligible trace amounts.
But an abundant supply is considered critical to eventual human exploration of the Red Planet, both as a sustainable source of breathable air for astronauts and as a necessary ingredient for rocket fuel to fly them home.
According to NASA, getting four astronauts off the Martian surface would take about seven tonnes of rocket fuel, combined with 25 tonnes of oxygen.
Transporting a one-ton oxygen-conversion machine to Mars is more practical than trying to haul 25 tonnes of oxygen in tanks from earth, MOXIE principal investigator Michael Hecht, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said.
Astronauts living and working on Mars would require perhaps one tonne of oxygen between them to last an entire year, Hecht said.
NASA’s mission to Mars
NASA in February kicked off a new era of Mars exploration with the successful landing of Perseverance, a car-size robotic explorer searching for traces of ancient life on the planet and collecting what could be the first rocky samples from Mars sent back to Earth.
The rover touched down in mid-February after executing a daring and dramatic landing that had been nicknamed the “seven minutes of terror.”
Perseverance is now NASA’s fifth rover to land on Mars and is set to begin a two-year mission to roam its surface and search for signs of ancient microbial life.
Only around half of all previous attempts to land on Mars have succeeded, and the Perseverance rover’s planned touchdown was considered the riskiest and most challenging.
But the agency is expecting big rewards from the $US3 ($A3.87) billion mission.
The Perseverance rover is not only the agency’s most sophisticated robotic explorer, but it’s also the first stage of a broader initiative to collect samples of Martian rocks and sediments and send them to Earth.
These efforts will help pave the way for human exploration of the red planet, said Janet Ivey, president of Explore Mars, a nonprofit organisation that advocates for sending astronauts to Mars.
“There’s a real probability that the Perseverance mission increases the chances of seeing humans on Mars in my lifetime,” she said.
“We’re really embarking on the grandest adventure.”
The Perseverance rover landed in an area of Mars known as the Jezero Crater, a 28-mile (45km) wide basin that lies just north of the Martian equator.
There is evidence that an ancient river once flowed into Jezero, forming a delta billions of years ago that had all the right ingredients for life to arise.
It’s in this region that Perseverance will be able to inspect rocks as old as 3.6 billion years and search for biosignatures, or traces of organic matter, in the Martian sediments.
“We expect the best places to look for biosignatures would be in Jezero’s lakebed or in shoreline sediments that could be encrusted with carbonate minerals, which are especially good at preserving certain kinds of fossilized life on Earth,” Ken Williford, deputy project scientist for the Perseverance mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
“But as we search for evidence of ancient microbes on an ancient alien world, it’s important to keep an open mind.”
The Perseverance rover, which launched into space in July 2020, is equipped with a drill, a 7-foot-long (2.1m) robotic arm and seven different science instruments.
The rover is also carrying a small helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, that will be used to attempt the first controlled flight on another planet.
Earlier this month, NASA scored a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment as it sent the miniature robot helicopter buzzing above the surface of Mars for nearly 40 seconds, marking the first powered controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
Officials at the US space agency hailed the brief flight of the 1.8km rotorcraft as an achievement that would help pave the way for a new mode of aerial exploration on Mars and other destinations in the solar system, such as Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan.
The debut flight of Ingenuity, resembling a large metallic tissue box with four legs and a twin-rotor parasol, was documented in full-colour video by cameras aboard the science rover vehicle Perseverance, which carried the helicopter to the Red Planet two months ago.
Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers on Monday as data beamed back from Mars confirmed the solar-powered helicopter had performed its maiden 39-second flight three hours earlier, precisely as planned.
“We can now say that human beings have flown an aircraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at JPL, during a NASA live-stream of the flight confirmation.
Altimeter readings from the rotorcraft showed it became airborne at 3.34am EDT (1734 AEST) on Monday, climbed as programmed to a height of three metres, then hovered steadily in place for half a minute while pivoting 96 degrees before making a safe touchdown, NASA said.
“That’s what we told Ingenuity to do, and it did exactly that,” Havard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at JPL, told a post-flight briefing. He called the flight “flawless”.
NASA likened the achievement to the Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight of their motor-driven plane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 – a takeoff and landing that covered just 37m in 12 seconds.
Early images included a black-and-white still photo taken by an onboard camera while the helicopter was aloft, showing the distinct shadow cast by Ingenuity in the Martian sunlight onto the ground below it.
A separate camera mounted on Perseverance, parked about 60m away, captured video of the rotorcraft’s entire flight against the landscape surrounding it.
The flight marked a historic feat in interplanetary aviation, taking place on an “airfield” 278 million kilometres from earth on the floor of a vast Martian basin called Jezero Crater.
In honour of the first human flight 117 years ago at Kitty Hawk, NASA officially designated Ingenuity’s flight zone as Wright Brothers Field.
The tiny rotorcraft hitched a ride to the Red Planet strapped to the belly of Perseverance, a six-wheeled astrobiology lab that landed in Jezero Crater on February 18 after a nearly seven-month journey.
JPL plans to press the aircraft to its brink with four more flights going further, faster and higher in the next two weeks. The first is targeted for Thursday.
Ingenuity was developed as a technology demonstration, separate from Perseverance’s primary mission to search for traces of ancient micro-organisms and collect Martian rock samples.
While Mars possesses much less gravity to overcome than earth, its atmosphere is just one per cent as dense, making it difficult to generate aerodynamic lift. To compensate, engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger (1.2m) and spin far more rapidly than would be needed on earth.
It also had to withstand overnight Martian temperatures dropping as low as minus 90C, using solar power alone to recharge and keep internal components properly heated.
The first flight was delayed a week by a technical glitch.
– with NBC
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