Mars, Atmosphere OXIE will turn Martian atmosphere into pure oxygen
How are you feeling assad less than a week until this? This incredible feat of engineering that you’ve worked so hard on actually lands on mars, i’m, actually right now pretty relaxed because it’s not really real, yet uh, i think come wednesday or thursday i’ll start feeling a little more nervous, probably thursday morning, i’ll be i’ll, be you Know huddled around my computer waiting waiting for information just like everyone else, fair enough. So could you walk me through moxie a little bit what it is and why people think that it could be a critical component to future crude missions on mars? Sure yeah, so so moxie in a nutshell, is an oxygen generator, so it will take the co2 from the martian atmosphere. The atmosphere on mars is 95 co2 at very low density, and then it will um basically convert that using an electrochemical process stripping some of the oxygen off that co2 and producing just pure oxygen and the goal or the real intent. Of course, you know: oxygen is useful for humans to breathe um but, most importantly, i think, for human missions to mars. It is a component of uh rocket propellant right when we burn rocket fuel. We usually burn it with an oxidizer that we carry on the rocket, and so if you can make your oxygen on mars, that means you don’t have to bring it with you from earth, and that saves a lot of launch mass and that’s.
Really the really the key uh goal. Definitely, i think a lot of people when they hear about moxie for the first time they immediately think oh well. This will be creating oxygen for future martian astronauts to to breathe inside of habitats in their spacesuits, but is that technology really more so geared towards creating rocket propellant? I think it really is and of course it depends on how long of a mission that a mars explorer might undertake. If it’s, you know a few weeks to a month kind of thing, you could probably bring all of the oxygen that you need for the astronauts with you, but if, but the amount of oxygen that you need for the return rocket, doesn’t change, no matter how long You stay on the surface of mars, so that’s the the big uh, the big hurdle that you have to overcome. Definitely so, as the system engineer for this incredible piece of equipment, what were the challenges in creating this? What are the major obstacles in taking martian air and turning it into pure oxygen? Well, the biggest development that we had uh during the moxie engineering process was the electrochemical part of it. So we worked with a company based in uh basis outside salt lake city uh, that was called ceramitec. They don’t exist anymore now, there’s, a they’ve transitioned to a company called axion energy um, but they have a lot of experience in the fuel cell area and and related technologies, and the electrolysis system for moxie is very similar to a fuel cell except it’s, operated in Reverse, and so we had to develop, along with our partners, a system that could take this very dry martian atmosphere and convert it into co2 in a way that didn’t degrade.
So this was one of the key developments was figuring out how to build that system and how to design the supporting equipment such that it didn’t over time. Slowly degrade in performance and slowly you get less and less and less oxygen out, and so that uh, that was probably the hardest thing. The next hardest thing was packaging that thing, because it operates at very high temperature, 800 degrees celsius, and so we needed to package it in a way that not only minimized the amount of energy that was um consumed to keep it hot, to get it hot and Keep it hot and also in a way that, while doing all that insulation hold it in place during launch, which is a relatively violent uh event in any space missions, like probably the most challenging dynamic mechanical event, that any space mission will see, and so that was A that was a major engineering challenge for us absolutely so i know that moxie is an experimental design um. How much, if that’s, even a question that you can answer how much oxygen? Could this single unit produce over the course of its life throughout the perseverance mars? 2020 mission, um moxie, is designed to produce at least about six grams, an hour of oxygen in pretty much any mars. Environmental condition that we might see six grams an hour is not very much. It doesn’t sound like very much and it’s, not very much it’s about um enough to keep.
Maybe a small dog alive i’d like to use a boston terrier as an example of something in the 20 to 30 pound range um. And so if conditions on mars are are particularly favorable, such as their it’s very cold and very high pressure, which means we get a lot of density in the gas and we can get more atmosphere through moxie, then we could generate potentially up to about 10 grams. An hour of oxygen, while we operate the um, we will operate a minimum of about 10 times over the course of the uh perseverance mission and generate auction for about an hour each time. So that kind of gives you a sense of the total amount of auction. It’S not very much definitely so you know it kind of goes without saying that you know if moxie’s intended design is to turn martian air into pure oxygen for the purpose of repurposing, that into future rocket fuel i’d. Imagine rockets would need quite a bit more oxygen for that fuel creation to be possible. What are the conversations looking like right now in terms of scaling up moxie with those future missions? What what might that look like and how might that be possible right? So actually, the moxie team has done a lot of work in trying to understand how moxie would scale up and basically, if you wanted to take something like moxie and just produce a bigger version, you need to basically multiply the amount of oxygen produced by about a Factor of 200, that sounds like a lot and it is, and you would do that by you, you first, you take that electrolysis stack and you would make it bigger.
First of all, and then you would add more layers and as you make it bigger and add more layers, you increase the active area in the electric uh chemical stack and you can create more oxygen that way and then you would have multiple stacks operating in parallel And they would all be fed by we in moxie we use a small compressor to draw gas in from the martian atmosphere and and compress it up to near earth pressure and and feed it into the electrolysis stack. So you would need a bigger compressor. You would need more compressors uh, you need enough thermal insulation, so we’ve done a lot of work into understanding. How big this thing would be. It might be, you know a cubic meter or maybe a little bit bigger. It might weigh about a ton um. It might consume sort of 10 kilowatts of power. Those are the kind of numbers that are uh sort of the ballpark for a scaled up moxie that would actually support human exploration, definitely uh so i’m curious as someone so close to this mission as someone so close to moxie itself. What what is most exciting to you about this incredible piece of equipment? Um? I think i think the it’s just the fact that we’re taking a tangible step towards human exploration of mars, i think, is the most exciting part sure there’s a lot of interesting technical questions and technical uh problems that we had to solve.
Uh in the development of moxie, but you know really it’s the end goal that’s the most interesting right. We are trying to take the first steps to actually putting humans on mars and getting them home so and and moxie’s unique it’s. The first time this has ever been done, unlike every other instrument that has ever been to mars and is even currently on the perseverance you know, rover gon na land in less than a week, it is the only one that is solely dedicated to uh preparing for Human exploration, there are other instruments that will do interesting things, there’s, like weather, stuff and there’s, a ground penetrating radar that might look for subsurface water, but this is the only one whose sole purpose is human exploration preparation. Definitely so this might be kind of an off the wall question, but i know that you know as something that would probably need to be scaled up quite a bit past where, where it currently is and with many different uh, you know companies and and project teams. Looking to 3d printing as a solution to realizing their, you know their products on a place like the moon or mars without having to actually fly all the pieces. There is, is 3d printing, something that the eventual scaling of moxie do you think that they could ever coalesce, you mean like 3d, printing from margin, martian materials and turning that into a useful things that again might be a little it’s that’s a really interesting question um.
I think uh, given what we know about resources and given what i know, which is not that much about 3d printing uh useful things not just you know, plastics are useful, but you know you really want to be able to 3d print metals and in fact moxie Does have some 3d printed metal components on it, but you know that’s um, there’s, a lot of infrastructure that has to be in place before you can 3d print metals on mars. The the materials that we use for 3d printing metals here on earth are basically very very carefully screened and selected, have um for chemical composition, for particle size, um and, and then the equipment that is used to actually produce these 3d printed parts is, is very complex And so i think the first part is: how do you get the raw materials for 3d printing on mars? You can’t just take a shovel and and take a bunch of dirt and load it into a hopper and hope that you get stuff out. You actually need to you actually need to do refining um. You know mining refining, um separation, chemistry uh to to actually get the raw materials in a state that you can actually use, and i think that that’s that’s really hard uh. So i think, to answer to go back around and fully answer the question. I would say that um, maybe not on the same time, scale that uh a scaled up moxie, but it could certainly be something in the future.
Maybe once there’s more of a human presence on mars uh, then that could be a possibility. Definitely so i i just have one more question: it kind of draws back to something you mentioned earlier. I think that a lot of people you know in looking at missions, like perseverance, like mars, 2020 uh, you know with experiments like moxie on board. I think that they are still asking why? Why are we going to mars? Why are we doing this exploration? Why are we making it possible to create pure oxygen on the surface of mars, it’s really cool, but why are we doing this work um and as the systems engineer for moxie, i’m, so curious? How you would answer that i mean the the the glib answer. Is you know because it’s there um, because you know it’s it pushes the the limits of what humanity can do. I think is a more serious answer. Um. You know, why did we go to the moon? We went. Obviously, you know because of a proxy war with communist russia uh, you know communist russia, but aside from that um, we we went to the moon because it was um a challenge right and you know i think humanity is at its best when it puts its resources Towards solving challenges that okay, maybe they don’t affect us on a day to day basis, but they show us what’s possible um for us as a species. Absolutely i couldn’t agree more well.
Thank you so much for speaking with me and i cannot wait to see percy land and i can’t wait to see the results that you get from this experiment. It’S going to be incredible to see, i can’t wait either it’s going to be fun awesome. Well. Thank you so much assad. I really appreciate this it’s my pleasure.