How gold helps create oxygen on Mars
NASA plans to send a manned mission to Mars in the next few decades. This will require creating oxygen from the carbon dioxide present in the Martian air. Part of the device that makes this possible is made of gold.
Gold has played and continues to play a key role in space exploration. For example, this noble metal was already a staple of NASA’s first space walk in 1965. The cable connecting Colonel Ed White to Gemini 4 was coated with gold to secure his grip, and the visor of his suit was also coated with gold to protect his eyes from solar radiation.
Gold’s durability and stability, as well as the fact that it does not rust and is a good conductor of electricity and heat, have led those responsible for many space projects to use it for a wide variety of purposes.
Mission to Mars
One of NASA’s great aspirations for the coming decades is to send a manned mission to Mars. A large amount of oxygen will be needed, both to burn the spacecraft’s fuel and to keep the astronauts alive.
The best option to avoid having to transport all that oxygen from Earth is to create it on the red planet itself. And it can be made from the carbon dioxide that makes up most of the Martian air. That’s why the robotic rover Perseverance, which arrived on Mars in February 2021, incorporates an instrument called MOXIE that produces oxygen from carbon dioxide.
Dr Michael Hecht, the principal investigator of this project, explains that “gold is critical to the operation of MOXIE”, which weighs 17 kilograms and is about the size of a car battery. MOXIE’s casing is made of gold because the metal “is extraordinarily stable, does not rust or corrode easily and is an excellent conductor of heat”, according to Hecht. This last property is crucial, as at certain times of the day the temperature is too high for the device to function.
A small-scale test
When MOXIE is running, the Perseverance remains virtually inactive, as it takes a lot of energy to separate the CO₂ molecules. Therefore, MOXIE does not run very often, only once every one or two months.
MOXIE takes about two hours to become operational, as one of the parts needed for the process must be heated up to 800 °C. After that, the vehicle’s batteries allow oxygen to be produced for an hour, during which time the project managers sometimes change the voltage or speed of the compressor to learn more about the instrument.
In that time, MOXIE can produce between 6 and 10 grams of oxygen. This is a minimal amount considering that each of us consumes between 10 and 20 grams of oxygen every hour. Still, it allows NASA to verify that this critical technology is working properly in the field.
In fact, the main goal of MOXIE is to demonstrate that this technology can be relied upon to keep future astronaut crews alive and bring them home safely. Also to learn many technical details about how to build a much larger future MOXIE system.
Two trips for one mission
Given the orbits of Earth and Mars, the optimal time for a trip between the two planets is every 26 months. One of the ideas for a manned mission is to first send all the necessary material – the living quarters for the astronauts on Mars, rovers, a power plant and perhaps a “big” MOXIE – and then send the astronauts 26 months later.
Thus, the base would be in place some 20 months before the astronauts’ journey. This “big” MOXIE would have to manufacture and store a significant part of the oxygen that the astronauts and their rocket would need on the mission. This means that the device would have to produce between 2,000 and 3,000 grams of oxygen per hour, compared to the 6-10 grams produced by the current MOXIE. And it would have to do so virtually non-stop.
Bear in mind that the ascent rocket to leave Mars would require between 25 and 30 tonnes of oxygen and that the astronauts could breathe between 2 and 3 tonnes during their 18-month stay on the red planet until the optimal time to return.
The first chapter of the series The Golden Thread, which deals with the importance that gold has in different areas of our lives, focuses on the fundamental role that this precious metal has played in the exploration of space.
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