Skip to Content
77 Mass Ave

Martian oxygen

How to turn the planet’s hostile atmosphere into something humans could breathe.

In April, thanks to an MIT-designed instrument, NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance achieved a remarkable milestone: it generated the first breathable oxygen on another planet. 

The Martian atmosphere is about 95% carbon dioxide, but MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilization Experiment), a small box-shaped device on board, converted it to oxygen through a technique called solid oxide electrolysis.

MOXIE being installed into Perserverence
Technicians at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower MOXIE into the Perseverance rover.
NASA/JPL-CALTECH

First the Martian carbon dioxide was compressed and filtered to remove any contaminants. It was then heated and separated into oxygen and carbon monoxide. The oxygen was isolated in a separate chamber, where the ions merged into oxygen gas, and the carbon monoxide was released back into the atmosphere. The test produced 5.4 grams of oxygen in an hour, and preliminary results suggested that it was nearly 100% pure.

“The first run of MOXIE is a step in the right direction to bring us closer to the possibility of human missions to Mars,” says Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the practice in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the project’s deputy principal investigator. Oxygen will be crucial not just for breathing but as a component of rocket fuel: according to principal investigator Michael Hecht, SM ’78, of the MIT Haystack Observatory, launching four astronauts off the Martian surface would probably require 25 metric tons of it.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.