Making Oxygen On Mars

Thanks to the renewed interest in space exploration and improvements in rocketry technology developed by companies like SpaceX, we’re inching closer to the point where we might actually land human beings on the surface of Mars. But if we’re going to stay there for any meaningful length of time, we’ve got another challenge that we’ll need to overcome: the human visitors will need to breathe, and that means coming up with a reliable way to create a lot of oxygen in the pointedly carbon dioxide-rich, oxygen-poor Martian environment.

Fortunately for the future explorers of Mars, it looks like the big brains at MIT have come up with a solution. They created a lunchbox-sized device called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or “MOXIE,” that was taken to Mars as part of NASA’s Perseverance rover mission and has been on the surface of Mars since the mission landed in February 2021. The underlying concept of MOXIE was to use the carbon dioxide on Mars to create oxygen–which is a lot cheaper than trying to cart oxygen all the way from Earth.

MOXIE sucks in the thin Martian air, filters and pressurizes it, then moves it through the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), an instrument created by OxEon Energy. SOXE splits the carbon dioxide-rich air into oxygen ions and carbon monoxide, isolates the oxygen ions, and combines them into O2, the kind of oxygen humans breathe. Once MOXIE confirms that breathable oxygen has been created, it releases the oxygen and carbon monoxide into the Martian atmosphere.

MOXIE has been powered up on multiple occasions since its arrival, during different Martian seasons and at different times of the day and night, to see whether it works in different conditions and different temperatures. So far, MOXIE has worked under all conditions except dawn and dusk, when the temperature is changing rapidly, but the MIT team believes it has a solution to that problem. The little lunchbox-sized device creates six grams of oxygen per hour, which is about the same amount as a small tree on Earth.

When we get to the point of sending a human mission to Mars, the plan would be to send much bigger versions of MOXIE to the Red Planet ahead of the human mission, power them up, and let it generate a repository of oxygen that would supply the needs of both the human visitors and the rocket that would take the humans back home to Earth. Pretty cool!

Moxie Insistence

Kish found a bottle of Moxie — the legendary official soft drink of Maine — in one of the local grocery stores and brought it home for us to try. I can report the Moxie is actually quite good. In fact, I liked it a lot, from the very first sip. It’s like a bold, flavorful, no-holds-barred root beer with an unknown additional ingredient— like ginger, maybe? You’d expect Mainers to go for something that packs a wallop, and Moxie definitely delivers.

Plus, I love the label on the bottle. When a guy who looks like that insists you drink Moxie, you’d better listen to him.

Local Sodas, Local Pops

Fortunately, there’s still a lot of regional flavor in the United States.  Despite the spread of standardized fast-food restaurants, and despite consolidation of businesses, when you travel around the country you can nevertheless find unique local food items that you’ve never heard of in your home territory.

What Midwesterners call “pop,” and people in the Northeast call “soda,” is a good example of that pleasant reality.  Coke and Pepsi might dominate the drink aisle, but most stores in most parts of the country reserve some shelf space for regional beverages.  If you go down to North Carolina, for example, you’ll find a cherry-flavored concoction called “Cheerwine.”  In Texas, the famed local option is “Big Red.”  In the Midwest, it’s Vernor’s.

Maine is well known for “Moxie” — which has actually been named the official drink of Maine.  Moxie was initially invented as a tonic and is made with roots and herbs that are supposed to help with your digestion.  Even its fans admit Moxie is an “acquired taste,” and I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet.  But Kish and I have become addicted to another regional offering:  diet Polar Orange Dry sparkling beverage.  It’s a tasty, brisk drink that has a lighter touch on the orange flavor than the other orange sodas I’ve tried, which pretty much punch you in the face with overpowering orangeness.  (I’ve always thought they gave Orange Crush that name for a very good reason.)  The Polar orange option has a much subtler, less cloying, more refreshing approach.  We’ve been shamelessly guzzling it during our stay this year.

But that raises a problem:  diet Polar Orange Dry isn’t sold in Columbus.  We’re either going to have to wean ourselves off this stuff, or stock the car with cases of it for the drive home. 

I have a pretty good idea of which option we’ll be going with.