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Mars 2020 is NASA’s next planned mission to Mars, in which a compact car-sized rover will search for signs of past habitability, and maybe life, by drilling into the Martian regolith. Upon arriving in February 2021, the rover will have a unique task – generating oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide, using a process of electrolysis. When it launches in the summer of 2020, the exploratory robot will be equipped with a special type of fuel cell, called Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE. NASA expects that MOXIE will produce 10 grams of pure oxygen (O2) per hour, inhaling carbon dioxide (CO2) from the Martian atmosphere and splitting the CO2 into carbon and oxygen, which it then exhales. In a sense, Mars 2020 will perform a form of artificial photosynthesis.

Oxygen production on Mars is tantamount to future manned missions and human settlements. Besides being the gas humans breathe, liquid oxygen is rocket fuel. If large quantities of Ocan be generated on Mars, the cost of traveling there and back decreases dramatically, as launching from Earth costs between $5,000 and $13,000 per kilogram. To produce oxygen en masse, however, NASA will need a fuel cell 100 times larger than MOXIE. This would likely require human construction. Perhaps even more importantly, renewable stores of O2 on Mars, in combination with its low gravity, would allow Mars to serve as a launching point for future manned missions deeper into space.

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