In another historical first, an instrument onboard NASA’s Perseverance rover has converted some of Mars’ thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen.

The test was carried out on Tuesday (20th April), with a toaster-size, experimental instrument aboard Perseverance, called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which accomplished the task.

Reporting its success, NASA said the technology demonstration is just getting started – and it could pave the way for science fiction to become science fact. 

NASA said that isolating and storing oxygen on Mars could help to power rockets that lift astronauts off the planets surface. Further to that, it is believed that such device may also provide breathable air for the astronauts themselves.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, Associate Administrator for STMD.

“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.”

“Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”

In the first operation, MOXIE’s oxygen production was quite modest – approximately 5 grams, equivalent to about 10 minutes’ worth of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. However, the technology is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

MOXIE is expected to extract oxygen at least nine more times over the course of a Martian year (nearly two years on Earth).

Such oxygen productions will run in three phases. The first phase will check out and characterize the instrument’s function, while the second phase will run the instrument in varying atmospheric conditions, such as different times of day and seasons.

In the third phase, Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory, said they will “push the envelope” - trying new operating modes, or introducing “new wrinkles, such as a run where we compare operations at three or more different temperatures.”

“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, Director of Technology Demonstrations within STMD. “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.”

“It’s taking regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and putting it through a processing plant, making it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – the bulk of the atmosphere – and converting it into oxygen,” she said.

“This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into useable things: propellant, breathable air, or, combined with hydrogen, water.”