- NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has begun its first science campaign.
- The robot will start scraping away at flat white stones that litter the Jezero crater floor.
- This is the rover’s first sampling location.
- Perseverance, nicknamed Percy, is a car-sized Mars rover designed to explore the crater Jezero on Mars as part of NASA's Mars 2020 mission.
- Perseverance has been active on Mars for 130 sols (133 Earth days) since its landing.
- Following the rover's arrival, NASA named the landing site Octavia E. Butler Landing.
- Perseverance has a similar design to its predecessor rover, Curiosity, from which it was moderately upgraded.
- It carries seven primary payload instruments, nineteen cameras, and two microphones.
- The rover also carried the mini-helicopter Ingenuity to Mars, an experimental aircraft and technology showcase that made the first powered flight on another planet on 19 April 2021.
Broad Objectives of Mars 2020 Mission
- Looking for habitability: identify past environments that were capable of supporting microbial life.
- Seeking biosignatures: seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in specific rock types known to preserve signs over time.
- Caching samples: collect core rock and regolith ("soil") samples and store them on the Martian surface.
- Preparing for humans: test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.
Note: Recently, NASA’s Perseverance mission produced oxygen on Mars.
How did Perseverance produce oxygen on Mars?
- In its first operation since arriving on the Red Planet, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) produced 5 grams of oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, enough for an astronaut to breathe for 10 minutes.
- On Mars, carbon dioxide makes up ~96% of the gas in the planet’s atmosphere.
- Oxygen is only 0.13%, compared to 21% in Earth’s atmosphere.
- Like a tree on Earth, MOXIE inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen.
- To produce oxygen, MOXIE separates oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules.
- It does so by using heat at a temperature of around 800 degrees Celsius, and in the process also produces carbon monoxide as a waste product, which it releases in the Martian atmosphere.
- A technology demonstrator, MOXIE is designed to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour, and is placed inside the Perseverance rover.
- MOXIE is only a test model. Future oxygen generators that descend from its technology need to be about 100 times larger to support human missions on Mars.
Why is producing oxygen on the Red Planet so important?
- A substantial amount of oxygen supply on Mars is essential for crewed missions that plan to go there– not just for astronauts to breathe but for rockets to use as fuel while coming back to Earth.
- For four astronauts to take off from Mars, a future mission would require around 7 metric tons of rocket fuel and 25 metric tons of oxygen– around the weight of an entire space shuttle.
- In contrast, astronauts living and working on Mars would require far less oxygen to breathe, maybe around one metric ton.
- Scientists believe that it will be an enormous challenge to haul the 25 metric tons of oxygen from Earth to Mars for the return journey.
- Their job would become significantly easier if the liquified oxygen can be produced on the Red Planet.