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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.

For MOXIE, the robotic machine simply needs to start sucking carbon dioxide out of the Martian atmosphere to get going.

"It's put down as is," said Hecht. "It's turned on and starts working. The reason we want to use this process, using carbon dioxide and electricity, is because we don't want to start digging up dirt and processing it. That's not as far fetched as it sounds. There's a mission planned to try that on the moon. It can be done but it takes a lot of robotics because you're excavating, you're drilling, you're getting rid of the slag. It's like making steel on earth."

Creating oxygen out of dirt is possible because silica, one of the most abundant oxides in dirt, has two oxygen atoms. Dirt, according to Hecht, is mostly oxygen.

Hecht said the Mars rover 2020 will test MOXIE during its mission to the Red Planet. Only enough oxygen will be stored to prove that the instrument works.

If the experiment does work, scientists will design a larger version of MOXIE for use ahead of a planned mission to send humans to Mars. NASA is focused on trying to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s and is building the heavy-lift rockets, robotics and spacecraft needed to get humans into deep space.

"I've always felt that the path to success is its simplicity in design," said Hecht. "I believe we have that. I can't say we have all the details worked out, but it's straightforward. What it will take to make it work successfully is lots and lots of testing and fixing and improving as you go along. The biggest challenge is to have the insight, the capability and the determination to give the system a chance to fail in testing, being willing to change things and being creative in fixing it when it does fail."

Right now, Hecht figures they have about five years to perfect the instrument.

The project has a science team, made up of researchers from the likes of MIT, the University of Arizona and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) dedicated to architecting the instrument. There's also an engineering team, largely based at JPL, that will do the actual building.

"It's not that much sci-fi," said Hecht. "It's a matter of having the political will. It's a matter of taking the excitement in this adventure to attract the best and brightest minds and putting them to work."


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