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NASA's MOXIE successfully creates Oxygen on Mars, and SpaceX's Crew-Dragon successfully returns to the ISS.

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The helicopter Ingenuity made the first controlled, powered flights on a body that isn’t Earth--Mars last week!

But Ingenuity isn’t the only record-breaking prototype that arrived on Mars with Perseverance. There was another device stored inside our plucky new rover.

And last week, NASA announced that it’s demonstrated a way future astronauts could turn Mars’s inhospitable air into something breathable. There are two main properties that make Mars’s atmosphere deadly to human life. One, it’s super thin, only about 1% as dense as Earth’s, and two, it’s almost all carbon dioxide.

So there’s nowhere near enough oxygen gas out there for us to breathe. But thanks to chemistry, there are several ways we can make oxygen molecules out of other molecules that contain oxygen atoms. Which conveniently, carbon dioxide does!

And scientists are using the Mars 2020 Mission, the program that sent over Perseverance, to test one of those techniques. The device is officially called the. Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, which NASA shortened to MOXIE.

It’s a gold-coated rectangular prism the size of a car battery or a toaster and was built to convert the suffocating carbon dioxide gas of Mars’ atmosphere into life-giving oxygen. Just like plants do. Except, not like plants do.

After taking in CO2 from the air, MOXIE compresses it into a density roughly the same as the pressure of Earth’s air at sea level. Then it has to heat it up to about 800 degrees Celsius. By using a kind of battery setup, along with that high temperature, it causes a chemical reaction that separates the atoms in the CO2 molecules, generating oxygen atoms that join together to create oxygen gas, O2, as well as carbon monoxide, or CO, as waste.

Equipment inside MOXIE then shunts what’s supposed to be just the oxygen one way, and the carbon-based molecules another. In the process, it measures how much oxygen it managed to produce as well as checks how much non-oxygen ended up going the wrong way. After cooling the gases down, MOXIE then pumps everything back out into nature through a filter, to make sure it’s not contaminating Mars with anything.

This was tested on real Martian air back on April 20th, the 60th sol, or Martian day, of Perseverance’s mission. After a 2-hour warm up, MOXIE spent the next hour producing five point four grams of oxygen. That’s about ten minutes worth of oxygen for one lone astronaut’s normal operations.

Not bad! As a prototype, MOXIE is designed to churn out ten grams of oxygen an hour, and scientists hope to test it out at least nine more times over the course of one Martian year. Those future tests will check to see how MOXIE runs in different environmental conditions, like at different times of day and during different seasons.

If all proves effective, future missions can use much larger versions of MOXIE to produce oxygen in situ rather than spend all that money shipping it from Earth. And that oxygen won’t just get used to keep people alive. In liquid form, it is also an ingredient in rocket fuel, and can be used to return both uncrewed and crewed missions to Earth.

Speaking of crewed missions, SpaceX delivered a new cohort of astronauts to the International Space Station last week, setting a couple of milestones by demonstrating the reliability of its reused parts. SpaceX has been ferrying supplies to the ISS for nearly a decade now, but only last year got NASA’s approval to start throwing actual people up there. The new, human-certified version of the capsule is dubbed Crew Dragon.

SpaceX currently has two Crew Dragons and claims they can each make five launches before they get decommissioned. Now that’s a lot less than we ended up getting out of the space shuttles, when Atlantis performed the final shuttle flight in 2011, that was its 33rd mission, but hey, NASA only used each Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsule once. Back in May of 2020, the Crew Dragon named Endeavour sent two test pilots up to the ISS for a brief two-month stay.

The second capsule, Resilience, sent up a crew of four for a full six months this past November. But this mission, dubbed Crew-2, is actually the first to reuse parts that have already been launched before. That includes both Endeavor and the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket used for that November launch.

It also is the first of these three launches to carry two non-American astronauts, from the Japanese and European Space Agencies. And it’s the first to bring along a penguin. A plushie penguin named GuinGuin, who comes along to indicate when everyone and everything inside the capsule becomes weightless.

It’s ok to have that floating around in there because it’s very soft. During their 24-hour flight to the ISS, Endeavor did have a close encounter with a piece of space debris, the astronauts got fully sealed into their spacesuits and strapped into their seats just in case a collision happened, but luckily it passed without incident. After the capsule safely docked with the ISS, the station’s population grew to eleven humans.

That’s so many more than the usual seven people that there were people briefly sleeping in the gym, the airlock, and both of the two Crew Dragons docked with the ISS. Lucky for everybody up there, the previous crew that SpaceX sent up will return to Earth inside their Crew Dragon, Resilience, on the first of May, giving the remaining inhabitants a little more elbow room. If you like space things, as we do, you might want to check out our pin of the month!

This month our pin is a mini-Neptune which is one of the sorts of planets that we have encountered most often outside of our solar system. And if you wanna keep a mini-Neptune all to yourself, you have to be quick and pre-order before the end of the month when it will be gone! The pin is available until the end of April at, and be sure to check back again in May, when we’ll have a whole new pin just waiting for you.