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When astronauts breathe on Mars, they'll thank MIT professor

Sharon Gaudin | Aug. 8, 2014
When astronauts are living and working on Mars, they'll be able to thank MIT's Michael Hecht for their ability to breathe on the Red Planet.

Someday, when astronauts are living and working on Mars, they'll be able to thank MIT's Michael Hecht for their ability to breathe on the Red Planet. They'll also have to give a nod to him for the oxygen needed to launch the rocket to bring them back to Earth.

Michael Hecht, a researcher at MIT, is helping to build an instrument that will create oxygen on Mars. (Image: MIT)

"There's zero way a human could breathe on Mars," Hecht, a researcher at MIT, told Computerworld. "But the oxygen also is for the return rocket. That's the hungry beast we have to feed.... To bring that much oxygen along, it's certainly not impossible but it makes the mission substantially more expensive and complicated. What's the point where the mission gets so expensive that it just won't happen?

"Unless we find ways — shortcuts — to make this something that people can grasp as being worthwhile, it won't happen," he added. "This plays a big part of expanding our horizons beyond Earth."

Late last week, NASA announced the seven new and improved scientific instruments that will be on board the next robotic rover to head to Mars in 2020. Along with high-tech cameras and ground-penetrating radar, one of the instruments on the rover will be a machine that will create oxygen.

By creating oxygen on the planet, humans will be able to breathe while they explore and possibly even set up a habitat.

Dubbed MOXIE - short for Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment — the instrument is designed to take carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and use it to produce oxygen. MIT describes it as a specialized reverse fuel cell that will consume electricity so it can produce oxygen on Mars, where the atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide.

MOXIE will have a big job since the Martian atmosphere is so different than the one on Earth.

The Martian atmosphere is only about 1% as dense as Earth's atmosphere; it's about the same density as the Earth's atmosephere 100,000 feet above the surface.

"Here, we'd consider it almost a vacuum," said Hecht. "That's how little of it there is and it's 95% or 96% carbon dioxide or 30 times more CO2 than on the surface of Earth. CO2 is a trace gas on Earth. On Mars, there's very little air overall, but it's mostly CO2."

At this point, the plan is to send an inflatable dome to Mars where a MOXIE-like machine could inflate it with oxygen.

"This is how we keep it within that [acceptable mission] — find this shortcut instead of having the astronauts bring the oxygen with them," said Hecht. "We send a small nuclear reactor to Mars and we send one of these oxygen facilities, which would be 100 times larger than Moxie, which produces 20 grams an hour of oxygen. You want something that produces about a pound of oxygen in an hour."


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