Breathable oxygen from the air thanks to NASA

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Home / Breathable oxygen from the air thanks to NASA

An instrument on the Perseverance Mars rover.

Is there oxygen in Mars?

A day after flying a tiny helicopter on another planet, the team behind NASA’s Perseverance rover achieved another big first on Mars. The vagabonding science lab managed to pull a bit of oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere, which is about 96% carbon dioxide.

The rolling robot carries an experimental instrument about the size of a toaster called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, known as Moxie, and on Tuesday it succeeded in peeling the oxygen atoms off molecules of carbon dioxide to create oxygen.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one-day seeing humans on Mars.”

Reuter adds that similar technology could be used to create rocket propellant and breathable air for future explorers.

In its first run, Moxie extracted about five grams of oxygen or the equivalent of around 10 minutes worth of breathable oxygen for one person. The device is designed to create up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour, so you wouldn’t want to rely on it for your survival, but NASA hopes that more powerful successors could be used to produce many tons of oxygen over their lifetimes.

The plan is for Moxie to extract oxygen at least nine more times during the first two years of the rover’s journey.

Moxie’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht, says the team will introduce “new wrinkles, such as a run where we compare operations at three or more different temperatures.” He adds that they “will try running the experiment under different conditions, times of day and seasons. … We’ll push the envelope.”

Bottom line: When astronauts take their first breaths of locally produced oxygen on Mars, they may have this gold, toaster-size gadget to thank.

NASA Ingenuity helicopter takes off on first historic flight over Mars

“We can now say that humans have flown a rotorcraft on another planet.”

Ingenuity, a NASA mini helicopter no heavier than a 2-liter bottle of soda, has pulled off the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. The feat took place at 12:31 a.m. PT on Monday morning, but it wasn’t until over three hours later that NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory received the first data from Mars.

The first flight is an impressive milestone in space exploration, paving the way for future missions on the red planet to utilize the skies, scouting new regions of the surface and surveying Mars’ dusty, dead plains. 

Learning to fly on Earth was difficult enough, but flying on Mars was a grand engineering challenge. The Martian atmosphere is only 1% as thick as the Earth’s, so a standard flier wouldn’t cut it. NASA has now shown it was up to the task.

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Ingenuity’s shadow on the Martian surface. You can just the tracks left behind by the Perseverance rover.NASA

“We’ve been talking for so long about our Wright brothers moment on Mars, and here it is,” said Ingenuity Mars helicopter project manager MiMi Aung, after ripping up her contingency speech. “We can now say that humans have flown a rotorcraft on another planet.”

Ingenuity was not controlled by engineers on Earth during its attempt. Instead, commands were uploaded to the spacecraft that took it from preflight checks to powered flight in a matter of seconds. The rotor blades spun up to 2,537 rpm, about six times faster than an Earth-based craft. Six seconds after startup, Ingenuity’s blades were able to generate lift by slicing through the tenuous atmosphere on the red planet.

Two images were released of Ingenuity in flight — one showing the shadow of the rotorcraft on the surface of Mars, and one captured from the side by the Mars rover.

The flight attempt had been delayed from its original target date of April 11 to give NASA time to update the machine’s software after a spin test of the rotors ended too early. An issue with the “watchdog” timer prevented the helicopter from spinning up correctly, but Ingenuity’s engineering team has corrected the problem. The solution, they said, allows for the chopper to “transition to flight mode and prepare for lift-off about 85% of the time.” 

It’s almost 120 years since Orville and Wilbur Wright got their experimental plane off the ground near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, documented in a famous black-and-white image of the flyer taken just moments after it left the ground.

A post-flight press briefing, scheduled to take place at 11 a.m. PT, will likely see the first images and videos downlinked for viewing. Notably, Perseverance, NASA’s next-gen Mars rover and previous home for Ingenuity, was stationed just 200 feet away at a location known as Van Zyl Overlook. The rover likely captured the history-making flight with its Navcam and Mastcam-Z imagers. 

Ingenuity will have nabbed its own images, too, with black-and-white images used to navigate and color photographs beamed back to JPL’s mission control later on Monday. We’ll have those images on CNET as soon as they make it back to Earth.

With one successful flight under its belt, NASA’s Ingenuity team isn’t done. A series of increasingly difficult flights will be attempted in the coming weeks, pushing the limits of the tiny helicopter that could. A second flight has been scheduled for no earlier than April 22.

It may not have covered quite the same distance as the Wright brothers Kitty Hawk, but Ingenuity has opened a path to achieve feats just as stunning elsewhere in the cosmos. 

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