Science Writing


We all know what this post is going to be about:

NASA has flown a drone on another planet.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. It’s the equivalent of the first steam engine or the first Moon landing.

This is a first step to inhabiting Mars one day in the (hopefully) not-so-distant future.

Here’s the video.

Ingenuity on Mars. It hovered three meters in the air in the thin Martian atmosphere. Credit: JPL on YouTube

There is is. Less than a minute of flight time. I know, it may not seem like much. It may seem like nothing at all, really, but this is culmination of years of planning, study, building and research. It’s the first step to one day flying on the red planet.

One hundred and sixteen years since first flight occurred on Earth and in that century we have landed on another planet and lifted off it’s surface in controlled flight.

But this isn’t the only milestone from Mars this week. Only a few days after the first flight of Ingenuity, the MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) instrument aboard Perseverance successfully converted a tiny fragment of the thin Martian atmosphere into oxygen.

Yes, it grabbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and split it into oxygen and carbon monoxide. Over the course of an hour it produced 5.4grams of oxygen. Which, admittedly, doesn’t seem like much, however it is enough for about ten minutes of work for the standard astronaut.

Though, MOXIE was not designed to be in practical use. It is a proof of concept and it works which opens the door for it to be expanded upon.

The idea of oxygen as a breathable chemical is one we are all obviously used to. However, that may only be one part of any future scaled up MOXIE’s role. Oxygen is also a vital source of fuel for rockets and with the capability of producing it on Mars, instead of carting rocket fuel to Mars to then use to get off the surface, will change everything.

Perseverance is currently storing small capsules of Martian dirt in sterile containers and leaving them on the surface of Mars, with the intention being that the next rover to land will collect them and then send them back to Earth.

This is relatively easy to do as the craft flying the samples back will be small, the samples themselves will be light, and the fuel required can be carried with it to Mars. But consider what will happen when there are people on Mars who need to get home, or heavier materials that need returning? They will need more fuel. And an up-scaled MOXIE is how we will get it.

These two milestones achieved millions of kilometers away on another planet will have ramifications that reverberate through the future of humanity for hundreds of years (if we make it that long).

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