NASA Perseverance rover just made oxygen on Mars: what does this mean? – Screen Shot
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NASA Perseverance rover just made oxygen on Mars: what does this mean?

David Bowie’s cult query ‘Is there life on Mars?’ can finally be answered—affirmatively on top of that! Well, sort of. NASA just announced that its Mars rover Perseverance successfully converted some of the planet’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into breathable oxygen. It is marked as the first-ever successful attempt at producing oxygen on another planet, and could well be the first step towards eventually making it possible for humans to live on Mars. Same thing, right?

In fact, according to the BBC, Perseverance has extracted enough oxygen from the air on Mars for a human to be able to breathe for roughly 10 minutes on the planet. The successful experiment was carried out by a toaster-sized unit in the rover called MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. But will MOXIE be able one day to extract enough oxygen to make Mars a habitable planet? That’s the big question.

MOXIE is able to strip oxygen atoms from CO₂ molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. The waste product is carbon monoxide, which is then released into the Martian atmosphere. In the future, NASA is hoping that people sent on missions to Mars would take scaled-up versions of the unit with them rather than trying to carry all the oxygen needed to survive from Earth.

Although MOXIE only managed to produce five grams of the gas this time, the NASA team behind it is running the unit in different modes to discover how well it works. The expectation is that it can produce up to 10 grams of O₂ per hour.

It might not sound like much to some of you, but this achievement is a massive step forward for science and space, and will be of great excitement to those who are hoping for the first humans to be able to settle on Mars in the near future.

That being said, Perseverance’s main mission is not to serve as an oxygen factory. It’s actually on the planet to explore, seek out potential evidence of microbial life, and run experiments to determine if the planet can eventually support life. Again, same thing, right?

This oxygen conversion test falls into the last category, but given that the atmosphere of Mars is composed of 96 per cent carbon dioxide, with oxygen making up only 0.13 per cent compared to 21 per cent on Earth, any chance of humans spending time on the planet relies on being able to create oxygen first and foremost.

“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world, it’s the first technology of its kind that will help future missions ‘live off the land’, using elements of another world’s environment, also known as in-situ resource utilisation,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) told the BBC.

This same process can also be used to return from the planet: “Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”

In other words, rockets need to have oxygen in order to burn fuel. According to NASA, a return trip from Mars for four astronauts would require 15,000 pounds of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen. For those same four astronauts to live on the planet for a full year, they would require just one metric ton of oxygen to breathe.

Let’s be realistic here—MOXIE has a lot more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are encouraging to say the least. Oh, and if this isn’t enough for you, that same mission just flew a mini-helicopter on Mars on Monday 19th April. Not bad, huh?

Good to know: 18-year-old astronaut Alyssa Carson’s mission to Mars

It’s safe to say that humanity has pretty much always been obsessed with outer space. But it wasn’t until our technology developed that the possibility of venturing into space materialised and the Space Race as we know it was born. And while the last century saw the race for space as being predominantly a competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. for who will be the first to set foot on the moon, the 21st century has seen a drastic shift from that. Today, space is turning into a playground for wealthy men eager to launch their satellites and rockets into orbit and, hopefully for them, land on the Moon, Mars, or any other planet for that matter.

Going to Mars has been in talks for a while, and now, with an official plan by NASA to send humans to the red planet by the early 2030s, who will be the first to travel into the unknown? Meet Alyssa Carson, an 18-year-old female astronaut who is breaking (literal) barriers on her planned mission to Mars, working toward this goal pretty much her entire life.

Screen Shot spoke to Carson about Mars, her involvement in the space industry, and the current state of the Space Race. “I was around 3 years old,” Carson says when asked when her fascination with Mars began. She claims she was inspired by Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans ‘Mission to Mars’ episode, and has been dedicated to set foot on Mars ever since—becoming the first person in the world to finish all of NASA’s space camps, graduating high school, and receiving her pilot’s license, all by the age of 18.

Carson is also the youngest person to have ever been accepted to the Advanced Possum Academy in October 2016 when she was just 15-years-old, graduating and becoming certified to to go to space— also making her the world’s youngest astronaut in training. She has attended all of NASA’s 19 spacecamps and is the only person in the world who completed the NASA passport programme, having visited all sites. Hoping to go to space for the first time for a short research mission in the “next year or so,” Carson is now likely to be one of the first few people to go to Mars in the early 2030s.

“There are still a lot of challenges to overcome with this mission—there are the radiation levels, the simple idea of having food for 2-3 years, and getting back,” says Carson. In 2001, when NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft launched, it was equipped with a special radiation measuring device, called the Martian Radiation Experiment (aka the MARIE), and detected about 8,000 millirads per year, working out to 8 rads. For comparison, humans in the most developed countries on earth are exposed to around 0.62 rads per year. Prolonged exposure to the kind of levels detected on Mars could lead to all kinds of health problems, such as acute radiation sickness, cancer, genetic damage, and even death.

None of this stops Carson, as she stays positive and trusts that the industry will be able to come up with solutions to all these issues prior to her sailing off to Mars. “I feel in pretty good hands,” she says, believing that everyone working on making this mission a reality is immensely passionate and prioritise safety above all. And if they are even half as enthusiastic and determined as Carson herself, we can trust this to be the case.

This is an incredibly competitive industry, and Carson is not alone in her dream of traveling to outer space.“18,000 people will apply and only around 12 get selected”. When asked what it is like to be a young woman in this industry, Carson encourages to get more women on board, as well as create a more intersectional community within, including queer people as “it is lacking a bit in the space industry”—although she does mention that NASA aims to choose half-male, half-female astronauts.

Like most industries, we could do with more diversity, but the one thing we can not disregard is that there are a lot of incredible and inspiring women “empowering the space industry”, Carson being one of them. Yet, somehow, the mainstream media almost always ignores this and focuses its attention on men. When was the last time you’ve read an article or listened to a podcast about going to space which did not involve Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin? That is of course not to discredit the valuable work of both men or Musk’s remarkable scientific developments, but it is about time we include women in the conversation.

As for the future of the industry, Carson believes that “space will start booming”, space tourism will grow, and soon even ordinary civilians will be able to travel to outer space (although I wonder at what cost).

But is moving to another planet and starting over the solution to our many problems on Earth? “The reason why we are going to Mars is to offer the next level of stability—going to Mars will offer us more materials, more resources,”says Carson, who believes that relocating to outer space could ensure the survival of our species, as well as pave the way for rapid developments within science and technology, which naturally would improve lives both on Mars and on Earth.

But how do we make sure we don’t destroy Mars the exact same way in which we are destroying our own planet, slowly directing it into environmental doom? “The ultimate goal is to care for Mars,” says Carson. The idea of starting over is certainly appealing, but history does have a tendency to repeat itself, and we need to be very careful once we inhabit Mars or any other planet. Space is the place where you would have to reuse everything, as there is a limited amount of resources we can take from Earth to begin with.

There is also the challenge of figuring out how to transport an increasing amount of resources (after all, at the moment it does take 7 months to travel to Mars). So, hopefully, when we come to colonise Mars, we apply much more caution than we did to our own planet.

Until then, let’s keep celebrating women like Carson who keep pushing boundaries and improving the space industry for the better.