Mars, MOXIE and More

NASA/JPL-Caltech's photo: '...the gold-plated Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) Instrument shines after being installed inside the Perseverance rover. (from 'MOXIE Sets Consecutive Personal Bests and Mars Records for Oxygen Production'; Forrest Meyen, MOXIE Science Team Member at Lunar Outpost; MARS PERSEVERANCE ROVER Blog (December 22, 2022))
MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) in the Perseverance rover before launch.

Humanity is one step closer to exploring Mars, in person. With people living and working on the surface. And eventually, I think, living there permanently.

That’s going to take time. But like I said, we’re one step closer.

This week I’ll be talking about In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), the NASA-ESA Sample Return Mission, and why we’re keeping our spaceships clean. Until they land, at any rate.


Living off the Land: Old Idea, New Applications

ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin's photo, via NASA: Jezero Crater's delta, image from ESA Mars Express Orbiter. (September 21, 2020)
Jezero Crater delta, Mars.

MOXIE Sets Consecutive Personal Bests and Mars Records for Oxygen Production
Forrest Meyen, MOXIE Science Team Member at Lunar Outpost, Mars 2020 Mission Blog (December 22, 2022)

“Perseverance has a unique device near its heart that inhales Mars’ atmosphere and exhales pure oxygen. This device is named MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. The toaster-sized MOXIE uses a high-temperature, electrochemical process called solid oxide electrolysis to strip oxygen ions from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mars. There are two little gas exit ports on MOXIE: one where oxygen flows out and another where a mixture of carbon monoxide and unreacted carbon dioxide exit.

“MOXIE is significant as the first demonstration on another planet of In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), a group of technologies that enable extraterrestrial ‘living off the land.’…”

SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, image Landsat (04/09/2013) Rick Potts, Susan Antón, Leslie Aiello's image: oldest known spread of genus Homo, 1,900,000 to 1,700,000 years ago. (2013) via Smithsonian Magazine“Living off the land” while we see what’s over the horizon isn’t a new idea.

It’s what we’ve been doing for the last two million years: meeting folks whose ancestors got started before ours; and that’s another topic.

Or maybe not so much.

My father grew up in a pre-industrial pocket of North America, and remembers his family literally field-testing a kerosene lamp. I remember when space ships, robots and computers were “science fiction”.

Having been raised by someone from another era, and experiencing so much change, may help me see current events as a continuation of humanity’s long story.

Take folks my culture calls Hawaiians, for example.

When folks from the Society and Marquesas islands — again, our names — sailed to islands in the North Pacific, they took along animals and plants they’d need in their new home.

And met Menehune, folks who’d settled the islands before they did.

I gather that Menehune are “mythical”.1

Maybe so, but I suspect that my culture is still getting used to the idea that “natives” may know more about their history than our professors. And no, I emphatically do not think we’ll meet Martians, or humans who got there before we did.

Getting back to current plans for exploring Mars —

What’s changed, now that we’re getting ready for extended visits to other worlds, is how much we’ll need to pick up locally.

Martian Air and Oxygen

NASA/JPL-Caltech's photo: Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE). Lowering MOXIE into the Perseverance rover. (March 21, 2019)
Lowering MOXIE into the Perseverance rover before launch at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (2019)

On Earth, for example, we don’t need to bring our own oxygen. Apart from 14 peaks in the Himalaya and Karakoram mountain ranges.

Mars is another matter. Even if there were as much oxygen in the Martian atmosphere as there is in Earth’s, the oxygen pressure would be far too low for us.

Actually, the Martian atmosphere has lots of oxygen, but it’s chemically bound to carbon: as carbon dioxide.2

That’s where MOXI comes in.

How MOXIE Works

NASA's illustration: 'The Perserverance rover (previously called Mars 2020) is host to seven payloads, including MOXIE, which will validate the capability to harvest volatiles from the Martian atmosphere.' (2014)
Some of what’s inside the Perserverance rover.

MOXIE is the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment.

It’s very roughly the size of a car battery or toaster, 9.4 by 9.4 by 12.2 inches. Make that a 12-volt SLI (Starter, Lighting and Ignition) lead-acid battery like the one in my household’s van.

Anyway, MOXIE weighs around 33 pounds and has produced more than 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

“…The atmosphere around Jezero Crater, the present location of Perseverance, reached peak density for the year mid (Earth) summer. This presented the perfect opportunity for the MOXIE science team to step on the accelerator and test how fast we could safely produce oxygen. This test occurred on Sol 534 (Aug. 22, 2022) and produced a peak of 10.44 grams per hour of oxygen. This represented a new record for Martian oxygen production! The team was thrilled to surpass our design goal of 6 grams per hour by over 4.4 grams. The peak rate was held for 1 minute of the 70 minutes oxygen was produced during the run.

“MOXIE’s next opportunity to operate came recently. Despite the decreasing density of the Mars atmosphere, on Sol 630 (Nov. 28, 2022) MOXIE managed to break the record again and produce nearly 10.56 grams per hour at peak. Oxygen production was sustained for a 9.79 grams per hour for nearly 40 minutes….”
(Forrest Meyen, MOXIE Science Team Member at Lunar Outpost, Mars 2020 Mission Blog (December 22, 2022))

MOXIE’s 10 grams of oxygen per hour is nowhere near enough for astronauts on Mars. But that’s not MOXIE’s mission.

MOXIE, like the Mars 2020 mission’s helicopter, is a technical demonstration. It’s there to see if what we figure should work, actually will work on Mars.

Here’s how MOXIE works.

First, in technojargon.

Electrical energy passes through a solid oxide electrolyzer cell (SOEC), separating carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon monoxide. The SOEC has a nonporous solid electrolyte between two porous electrodes.

Thermal dissociation and electrocatalysis liberates an oxygen atom from carbon dioxide. This process process involves oxygen ion valencies in the electrolyte’s crystal lattice transport oxygen ions to an electrolyte-anode interface.

But never mind electrolyte-anode interfaces. There won’t, happily, be a test on this.

Basically, MOXIE’s SOEC heats Martian air, breaking carbon dioxide into oxygen, carbon monoxide and carbon, with some carbon dioxide left over.3

Oxygen Isn’t Just For Us

1
'A Comparison of Previously Published Papers on the Economics of Lunar
In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)'; Robert Shishko, Ph.D.; Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (2019) Figure 1: A Lunar ISRU Plant Concept. Associated with Synopsis of Charania and DePasquale (2007)Folks on Mars will need oxygen for the same reason we need it here. But that’s not the only — or even the main — reason for designing oxygen-makers like MOXIE.

“…Many people initially assume that this means that MOXIE’s primary purpose is to produce oxygen for future astronauts to breathe. While this is certainly an application, the most significant use of MOXIE’s technological descendants will be to produce oxygen for use as an oxidizer in rockets created to return explorers back to Earth after a successful Mars mission….”
(Forrest Meyen, MOXIE Science Team Member at Lunar Outpost, Mars 2020 Mission Blog (December 22, 2022))

An oxidizer’s not much use without something to oxidize, so we’ll be developing other ISRU tech that produces methane on Mars.

Mars isn’t the only place where we’ll be getting supplies.

Lunar soil has the raw materials — silicon, aluminum, and glass — for making solar cells. Maybe not glass, exactly, but slica we can use to make glass.

Back in the late 1950s, S. T. Demetriades outlined how we could extract oxygen and other gasses from the outer atmosphere of Earth and the Solar System’s gas giants. I gather he’s better-known for his work in magnetohydrodynamics, and that’s yet another topic.4

The last I heard, the Propulsive Fluid Accumulator (PROFAC) Demetriades described is still more theory than hardware. But that sort of tech, and the orbiting fuel stations it would supply, sounds like a good idea.


Rock Samples From Mars and the Search for Life

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Perseverance: annotated image, showing the mission's first sample depot location: where the Mars rover will deposit a group of sample tubes for possible future return to Earth. The depot location is 'Three Forks' in Jezero Crater. (August 29, 2022)
Image from Perseverance: sample tube depot location, “Three Forks”, Jezero Crater. (August 29, 2022)

NASA and ESA Agree on Next Steps to Return Mars Samples to Earth
Dewayne Washington, Karen Fox, Erin Morton (NASA); D. C. Agle (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California) (October 28, 2022)

“The agency’s Perseverance rover will establish the first sample depot on Mars.

“The next step in the unprecedented campaign to return scientifically selected samples from Mars was made on Oct. 19 with a formal agreement between NASA and its partner ESA (European Space Agency). The two agencies will proceed with the creation of a sample tube depot on Mars. The sample depot, or cache, will be at ‘Three Forks,’ an area located near the base of an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater….”

“…The next step in the unprecedented campaign…”??

I’m not a great fan of how word “unprecedented” has been used lately.

A Precedented and Perfunctory Protestation

Someone's illustration of the 'Revelation 12 sign:' an imaginative mix of astrology, astronomy and folklore; with a dash of Bible-based beliefs for flavor.Happily, reporters and editors seem to realize that America’s perennial End Times Bible Prophecy reboot is anything but news.

Natural disasters are another matter.

Take this headline from a couple years back, for example:

If that sounds familiar, maybe you remember when I talked about “Colorado Families … Unprecedented Thanksgiving”, November 25, 2020.

Briefly, this time: all or nearly all folks living in 2020’s Colorado weren’t there during the 1918 pandemic. But Colorado wasn’t uninhabited back then. Not even after Charlie Phye, Jessie May Hines-Phye and their six children died.

  • 1918: When the flu came to CSU
    Kate Jeracki; with additional research by Mark Luebker, Office of the President, Vicky Lopez-Terrill, Cory Rubertus, University Archives and Special Collections; College News, Colorado State University (March 23, 2020)
  • Gunnison Colorado
    Influenza Encyclopedia, University of Michigan Library
  • The Phye Family
    Judy Walker, Dr. Adrienne LeBailly; The Pandemic Influenza Storybook

Bringing Back Rocks From Mars

NASA illustration: Mars 2020 caching strategy.)Now, about Perseverance, NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and their “unprecedented” plans for bringing back rock samples from Mars.

In this case, we’re not looking at the usual journalistic puffery, exaggeration and outright misdirection.

Although a European Space Agency’s existence is remarkable.

I suspect that noticing what happened during the 20th century’s double-header global war encouraged Europe’s survivors to wonder if cooperation might make sense.

Wrenching myself back on-topic, what’s “unprecedented” in efforts to return samples from Mars isn’t the international cooperation angle.

And it’s not bringing back extraterrestrial samples.

Apollo 11 did that in 1969. So did the robotic Luna 16 probe in 1970. The Mir space station collected samples from low Earth orbit in 1996 through 1997.

Although it crashed in the Utah desert, the Genesis spacecraft returned samples from beyond our moon’s orbit in 2004.

The Soviet Fobos-Grunt mission would have returned samples from the Martian moon Phobos, but it crashed into the southern Pacific Ocean after a few orbits of Earth.

And we’ve already collected some material from Mars, right here on Earth. Scientists have learned quite a bit by studying Martian meteorites that fell on our planet.

But this is the first time we’ve tried getting samples back from the Martian surface: from “another planet”, as the NASA press release said.

That is a “first.” Provided that we view Earth’s moon as a satellite, rather than seeing the Earth-Moon system as a double planet.5

Sealed Samples, Sanitary Spacecraft

NASA/JPL-Caltech photo: Sample tube number 266, used to collect the first sample of Martian rock by NASA's Perseverance rover. The laser-etched serial number helps science team identify the tubes and their contents. Photo probably taken at Jet Propulsion LaboratoryI’m glad that scientists have been careful about not letting Terrestrial microbes hitch rides of our robotic probes. I also think taking reasonable precautions about material we’re bringing back makes sense.

The key word there is “reasonable”.

I enjoyed the 1971 “Andromeda Strain” film, partly because the super-secret laboratory’s fail-safe device — a nuclear bomb — would, ironically, have given the space bugs the one thing they lacked: energy. The crystalline micro-critters were almost starving, down here at the bottom of Earth’s atmosphere.

And that’s yet again another topic, almost.

Since one of our many questions about Mars and other worlds is whether or not they support or supported life, not letting our microbes loose on them is a good idea.6

Traces of Life

NASA's photo: 'The planetary landing spacecraft Viking I under assembly at Martin Marietta Aerospace. Learning about instrument sensitivity during the Ranger missions led to the use of white tech suits during assembly, which is a standard practice today.'If, say, someone had sneezed on one of the Viking landers — actually, if the person had been experiencing the common cold, we might be okay. The 200 or so microscopic pests that cause colds are all viruses.

If a few, say, rhinoviruses dropped onto the martian surface, they’d stay inert until a host came along; or, more likely, until radiation broke them up. Viruses don’t do much unless they’re inside a living cell.

Now, if a rhinoscleroma bacterium or two made the trip: they’d probably die. But I’m not entirely sure about that. Terrestrial life has been adapting to ‘unsurvivable’ conditions for a very long time.

Either way, though, there’d be at least pieces of living things — or, in the case of viruses, not-exactly-living things — on Mars. And those pieces might get blown around to other places.

Unless Martian life was very different from our version, we might never know if chemical traces of life we eventually found there were home-grown, or originally from Earth.

So I see good reason for keeping our robot spacecraft free of both living microorganisms and chemical traces of microorganisms. Make that as free as possible.

And being careful about returning samples. If for no other reason than to keep eager-to-eat terrestrial microcritters away from high-value research material.

And I’ll grant that some non-terrestrial organisms might survive, once they got here. Maybe even long enough to make trouble. So being cautious about returning samples does make sense.7

Sample Return Mission’s Current Plans

This one minute, 47 second video almost certainly doesn’t show exactly how the NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission will try bringing back samples from Mars.

But it’s a pretty good illustration of what’s being planned, as of July 2022.

If all goes well, a rover and/or robotic helicopters will fetch sample tubes from the cache(s) Perseverance is stocking, loading them on the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV).

The MAV is a small rocket that will have been brought in on the Sample Retrieval Lander: a lander/launch platform.

Well, comparatively small. The current MAV design is a foot and a half in diameter and 10 feet tall.

NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission plans have changed, a lot, since 2001. I strongly suspect they’ll change again before the mission’s robots leave Earth. Which, again if all goes well, will be in 2028.

But right now it looks like the Sample Retrieval Lander will throw the MAV a few meters above the lander, giving the MAV’s front a little extra push. Then, with it’s nose pointed above the horizon, the MAV’s first stage will ignite.8

This is not, putting it mildly, a simple process.

Photo from From BAS, via BBC News: 'In good shape: Halley station is now being readied for the summer season'. Jonathan Amos, BBC News (November 10, 2017)I’ve got more to say about getting samples back from Mars. And a great deal more to say about what we’ll likely do after that.

Along with what we’ve done so far, in less-unsurvivable environments.

But that will wait for another time.

Meanwhile, here’s more of what I’ve written:


1 Periods, perceptions and perspective:

2 Air and oxygen:

3 MOXIE, ISRU and car batteries:

4 Mars, materials, means and magnetohydrodynamics:

5 Rocks and rockets:

6 Rock samples and reasonable caution:

7 Studying life on Earth, and maybe elsewhere:

8 Bringing back rocks from Mars:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
This entry was posted in Discursive Detours, Science News and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Thanks for taking time to comment!