A device on NASA's Perseverance Rover converted Mars' thin air into oxygen.
The pilot project produced enough oxygen for a small dog to breathe for 10 hours.
The next step is expanding the technology to create oxygen for humans and for rocket fuel.
NASA has a way to produce oxygen out of the air on Mars, and it could be a huge step toward building crewed bases on the Red Planet.
Creating oxygen from the Martian air is no easy feat.
Mars' atmosphere consists of mostly carbon dioxide (95%) and nitrogen (3%). It only has traces of oxygen, meaning it's impossible to breathe on Mars, let alone explore it.
That's where the microwave-sized device named the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, aka MOXIE, comes in.
MOXIE hitched a ride to Mars on NASA's Perseverance Rover in 2021 and has been hard at work ever since.
Over the last 2.5 years, it created 122 grams of oxygen — enough to keep a small dog alive for 10 hours, NASA said in a statement Wednesday.
That may sound like a lot of time and effort for such a small amount, but MOXIE is just a pilot.
Now that scientists know the technology works, they can begin scaling it up to hopefully one day produce enough oxygen for humans to breathe and for fuel to power the rocket back from Mars, NASA said.
"By proving this technology in real-world conditions, we've come one step closer to a future in which astronauts 'live off the land' on the Red Planet," Trudy Kortes, the director of technology demonstrations for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA, said in the statement.
MOXIE performed twice as well as expected
The small device was even more successful than researchers had hoped.
In June, scientists pushed MOXIE's limits. At maximum production level, it generated 12 grams of oxygen an hour — twice as much as expected — at 98% purity or better, according to NASA.
It was a risky experiment that could've damaged MOXIE but ultimately proved the technology's impressive capabilities.
"We rolled the dice a little bit," Michael Hecht, MOXIE's principal investigator, told Space.com in June. "It was 'hold your breath and see what happens.'"
How MOXIE makes oxygen on Mars
MOXIE works by separating a single oxygen atom from each molecule of carbon dioxide in Mars' thin atmosphere.
Scientists can use the MOXIE pilot project to inform the next phase of the technology: building out a larger, more developed system that would include an oxygen generator along with a method for liquefying and storing the oxygen it produces, NASA said.
"Developing technologies that let us use resources on the moon and Mars is critical to build a long-term lunar presence, create a robust lunar economy, and allow us to support an initial human exploration campaign to Mars," Pam Melroy, the deputy administrator at NASA, said in the statement.
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