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Making Oxygen on Mars is No Match for This Johnson Team


Waryn Flavell |
March 15, 2021

NASA’s Johnson Space Center did it again — providing contributions to Perseverance that were key to its success. Johnson’s Propulsion and Power Divisions collaborated with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, to provide expertise in carbon dioxide electrolysis and supplied Perseverance with pyrotechnic initiators. Their contributions to Perseverance could help future astronauts on Mars “live off the land.”

Did you know that oxygen produced on Mars could support the breathing supply for human explorers? The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) hitched a ride to the Red Planet, located inside Perseverance’s front, right side. MOXIE will be the first experiment on Mars to produce oxygen from the Martian carbon dioxide atmosphere — in part due to contributions from Johnson.   

The MOXIE payload as it is installed in the Mars 2020 rover. Credits: NASA

The MOXIE payload as it is installed in the Mars 2020 rover. Credits: NASA

Johnson began work on the project in 2017, serving on the science team and providing a technical background for the project lifecycle, and will continue monitoring the performance of the MOXIE payload on Mars. The center helped equip the Perseverance rover in system design, systems architecture, testing, qualifications, and more, ensuring that all the phases of the project were complete and the requirements met.

“JSC has over 30 years of experience and knowledge in the area of CO2 (carbon dioxide) electrolysis, which is a method to make oxygen from the Martian atmosphere,” said Koorosh Araghi, In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) domain manager at Johnson.

In 1996, Johnson worked on a similar project, called the Mars In-Situ Propellant Production Precursor, or MIP, Oxygen Generator Subsystem. The MIP, a Johnson design relying on technologies from JPL and NASA’s Glenn Research Center, was to be part of the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander — but the mission was cancelled. However, that first NASA concept of using ISRU for making oxygen on Mars came from MIP, and has new life with MOXIE.

At left, the design of MOXIE. At right, the 2001 Mars ISPP Precursor project, which originated the MOXIE concept. Credits: NASA At left, the design of MOXIE. At right, the 2001 Mars ISPP Precursor project, which originated the MOXIE concept. Credits: NASA

MIP and MOXIE also have SOXE, or the Solid Oxide Electrolysis Unit, in common. SOXE, considered the heart of MOXIE, is a ceramic-based hardware running at 800 degrees Celsius that is able to split the carbon dioxide Martian atmosphere into one carbon monoxide and one oxygen ion. This results in pure oxygen produced at 10 grams per hour. MIP, meanwhile, would have had a lower oxygen production rate goal (0.5 standard cubic centimeters per minute) to demonstrate the first ISRU on the surface of Mars while generating oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

The Pyrotechnics group at Johnson also made extraordinary contributions to the Mars 2020 mission, supplying 179 initiators for the rover.

“All the deployment and separation functions were pyrotechnically driven and initiated with JSC-supplied NASA Standard Initiators (NSIs),” said Todd Hinkel, the Johnson Pyrotechnics technical discipline lead.

NSIs take electrical current and converts it into a pyrotechnic output. The resulting output is propelled into another cartridge to actuate a device or ramp up a detonation.

Some of the initiators on Perseverance were used during the flight to Mars, while most — 152 of them — were used upon entry.

Hinkel watched as Perseverance made its historic landing, feeling a mixture of competing emotions.

The first was relief — (as) loss of any pyro function typically results in a loss of mission,” Hinkel said. “I was confident in the hardware, but it was still nice getting verification that the vehicle landed as expected, and that our contribution was successful. That was followed by a sense of pride. We had a lot of initiators onboard, and they all worked flawlessly. When I see Mars, it’s personally satisfying to know that our hardware is up there. It’s also strange to think that my fingerprints are on a little speck of light in the night sky.”

Perseverence’s exploratory mission on the Red Planet is the result of teamwork across many NASA centers, divisions, and groups. And one day, when explorers venture deeper into the cosmos, following where rovers have tread before, it will be because scientists and engineers first investigated how humans could live and work — using resources from the surface — to support such a grand vision.

Learn more about MOXIE. 

Learn more about the Propulsion and Power Division at NASA here.

The Pyrotechnics group at Johnson supplied 179 initiators for the Mars 2020 mission. Credits: NASA
The Pyrotechnics group at Johnson supplied 179 initiators for the Mars 2020 mission. Credits: NASA
The location of MOXIE on Perseverance. Credits: NASA
The location of MOXIE on Perseverance. Credits: NASA