The device responsible for the feat is called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which is the size of a toaster, weighing about 38 pounds on Earth and a slim 14 on Mars. By superheating carbon dioxide to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit to split it on a chemical level, MOXIE can produce up to ten grams of oxygen per hour in the lab; this week, it managed to pump out about five grams, which is enough for an astronaut to breathe for ten minutes, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
For future missions, there’s plenty of carbon dioxide to work with: The Martian atmosphere is about 95 percent carbon, with the remainder mostly made up of nitrogen and argon. Scientists hope that they’ll eventually be able to scale up the device to allow astronauts to survive off MOXIE oxygen.
According to Michael Hecht, an MIT scientist who’s the operational director of the MOXIE project, a group of four astronauts would require one metric ton of oxygen to last a whole year. Oxygen production would also be crucial to getting an astronaut team back to Earth, an associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate said on Wednesday: “Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and to make the trip home.” (Due to the space and weight required to store a year’s worth of breathable oxygen, schlepping it from Earth is considered impractical.)
On Wednesday, NASA also announced a successful second flight for its Ingenuity helicopter, reaching an altitude of 16 feet and flying for 52 seconds — breaking the previous (and only) rotorcraft record set on Mars earlier this week, when it reached 10 feet and flew for 40 seconds.