“We do have an ace up our sleeve that will let us do that, and once we test that in the lab, we can reach that last milestone to show we can really run any time.”
The game plan
MOXIE’s current design is small to fit aboard the Perseverance rover. It is built to run for short periods, starting up and shutting down with each run, depending on the rover’s exploration schedule and mission responsibilities.
According to MIT researchers, a scaled-up version of MOXIE could be sent to March ahead of a human mission to continuously produce oxygen at the rate of hundreds of trees.
At this capacity, the system should produce enough oxygen to sustain humans once they arrive and power a rocket that will return astronauts to Earth.
“We have learned a tremendous amount that will inform future systems at a larger scale,” said Hecht.
Engineers intend to enhance MOXIE’s production capacity as it continues to produce oxygen on Mars, especially in the Martian spring when atmospheric density and carbon dioxide levels are high.
“The next run coming up will be during the highest density of the year, and we just want to make as much oxygen as we can,” said Hecht.
“So we’ll set everything as high as we dare and let it run as long as we can.”
As one of many experiments on the Perseverance rover, MOXIE cannot operate continually as a natural system would.
Instead, the instrument must start up and shut down after every run, putting heat stress on the system that could eventually cause it to fail.
Suppose MOXIE can function properly despite switching on and off frequently. In that case, a more extensive system that is intended to run continuously might be able to do the same for thousands of hours.