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Sci-fi ideas take flight in the air of Mars

Drones on Mars? Factories that convert the carbon dioxide in the Red Planet’s atmosphere to breathable oxygen? Such concepts have fueled science-fiction stories for decades, and now they’re becoming reality.

Those two examples turned from fiction to fact just in the last week, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover mission. A mini-helicopter that hitched a ride to Mars beneath Perseverance’s belly has made its first two flights, and an experiment called MOXIE has demonstrated the CO2-to-oxygen trick in actual Martian conditions for the first time.

For viewers of National Geographic’s “Mars” sci-fi docudrama, it’s a case of been there, seen that. During the show’s first season, scaled-up versions of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter conducted reconnaissance missions that ranged above otherwise-inaccessible terrain. Martian air converters — actually called MOXIE — supplied astronauts on Mars with the oxygen they needed to get by.

The fact that both the fictional and the actual converters have the same name is in part due to Bobby Braun, who served as a consultant to the “Mars” show when he was a University of Colorado engineering professor and has since become director of solar system exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Back in 2016, Braun told me the filmmakers’ use of MOXIE — which stands for Mars OXygen In-Situ Resource Experiment — served as an example of “things that are going on today that really inform the way the future mission, the 2033 mission in the series, unfolds.”

Martian helicopters and oxygen converters will have to become a lot more advanced over the next dozen years to match the vision laid out in “Mars” and other science-fiction tales. But if 2033’s historians look back at the technological developments that opened up Mars’ frontiers,  the past week could well loom large on their timeline.

Ingenuity rises again

Just three days after Ingenuity’s first takeoff from “Wright Brothers Field” on the surface of Mars, the solar-powered helicopter rose again today on its second demonstration flight.

This time, the 4-pound rotorcraft climbed to a height of 16 feet (5 meters), as opposed to the first flight’s rise to 10 feet. Then it performed a 5-degree tilt, allowing some of the thrust from its rotors to move it 7 feet (2 meters) sideways.

“The helicopter came to a stop, hovered in place, and made turns to point its camera in different directions,” Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at JPL, said in a news release. “Then it headed back to the center of the airfield to land. It sounds simple, but there are many unknowns regarding how to fly a helicopter on Mars. That’s why we’re here – to make these unknowns known.”

A picture taken from a camera on NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter shows the rotorcraft’s shadow on the surface of Mars. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Perseverance’s Navcam and Mastcam-Z cameras recorded the 51.9-second flight from a distance of about 200 feet.

NASA plans to do three more demonstration flights within the 30-day period allotted for the Ingenuity experiments. Engineers will use the data collected during the progressively more ambitious flights to design more capable aircraft that could conduct aerial surveys of Mars.

One concept that’s been in the works for more than two decades, known as the Mars Gas Hopper, calls for storing up CO2 from the Martian atmosphere — and then heating it into a propellant for reconnaissance missions ranging out as far as 100 kilometers (62 miles).

“It is a ship for sailing Mars,” Robert Zubrin, the founder of Pioneer Astronautics and president of the Mars Society, told me back in 2005.

And that’s not the only thing Martian CO2 is good for….

A breath of air from MOXIE

Perseverance’s toaster-sized MOXIE experiment extracted oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere for the first time on April 20.

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” Jim Reuter, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology, said in a news release. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.” 

Crewed Mars missions will require about 7 metric tons of rocket fuel and 25 metric tons of oxygen for liftoff from the Red Planet. MOXIE’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht of MIT’s Haystack Observatory, estimates that a team of four astronauts would probably need another metric ton of oxygen to satisfy their needs during a year on Mars.

Instead of carrying more than 25 tons of oxygen to Mars with them, future crews would be better served by making use of a one-ton oxygen converter on Mars.

MOXIE has a mass of only 38 pounds (17 kilograms), and it can produce only about a third of an ounce (10 grams) of oxygen per hour. During this week’s initial experiment, the contraption produced about 5 grams of oxygen, which is equivalent to 10 minutes’ worth of breathable oxygen for an astronaut. But the technology can be scaled up for a much larger oxygen converter.

The device draws Martian air into a chamber where it’s heated to a temperature of 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius), which breaks apart the carbon and oxygen atoms in CO2. Those atoms recombine into oxygen gas (O2) and carbon monoxide (CO). The carbon monoxide is expelled back into the atmosphere as a waste gas.

To accommodate the high heat of the production process, MOXIE is built with heat-tolerant materials, including 3D-printed nickel alloy, gold coatings and lightweight aerogel insulation.

The MOXIE team plans to run at least nine more oxygen-extraction experiments over the course of Perseverance’s two-year mission.

Future experiments will try turning the Red Planet’s ice deposits into drinkable water, or combining the hydrogen from H2O and the carbon from Mars’ atmosphere to produce methane fuel (CH4).

Trudy Kortes, NASA’s director of technology demonstration missions, said such processes will help astronauts live off the land on Mars.

“It’s taking regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and putting it through a processing plant, making it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – the bulk of the atmosphere – and converting it into oxygen,” she said. “This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into useable things: propellant, breathable air, or, combined with hydrogen, water.”

Update for 10:42 p.m. PT April 22: Be sure to read the comment below from Stephen Petranek. He’s the author of  “How We’ll Live on Mars,” the book on which National Geographic’s “Mars” series was based. He was also a co-producer of the series.

“The person who never seems to get any real credit for MOXI is Dr. Michael Hecht at MIT,” Petranek writes. “He is the principal investigator on MOXIE and the genius behind it.”

Petranek also provides a teaser for an upcoming IMAX film titled “Mars 2080,” which speculates about how we’ll live on Mars 60 years from now. “Wait for it, because it will knock your space helmet off,” he says. For more about “Mars 2080,” check out Deadline’s story.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

2 replies on “Sci-fi ideas take flight in the air of Mars”

Nice article, Alan. I’m sure my pal Bobby Braun told you all about MOXIE in 2016, but most people first heard about MOXIE in my 2015 book, “How We’ll Live on Mars,” published by Simon & Schuster. The National Geographic “Mars” series (both seasons) was based on that book. I was also a co-producer of the series. Dr. Braun was an invaluable consultant to the series, but the person who never seems to get any real credit for MOXIE is Dr. Michael Hecht at MIT. He is the principal investigator on MOXIE and the genius behind it. Meanwhile, ,Dr. Braun and I are collaborating on a new Imax film, “Mars 2080,” about life on the Red Planet 60 years from now. It is being produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Justin Wilkes (plus yours truly) via Imagine Entertainment. Wait for it because it will knock your space hemet off.

I’m honored to hear from you, Stephen! So glad to give credit where credit is due, and I can’t wait to see “Mars 2080.” I’ve updated the story in hopes folks will catch your comment – and we’d love to have you on the Fiction Science podcast sometime soon.

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