Mission to Mars: JPL Unveils Toaster-Sized Tech that May Create Oxygen on Red Planet

When the newest Mars rover departs Earth this summer, it will carry a relatively small piece of new technology that could potentially transform the way humans explore space. On Monday, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge will present details on its exploration goals, including a new technology that could help humans breathe on the red planet.

Roughly the size of a fancy toaster oven, MOXIE, which stands for the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Equipment, essentially produces oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere, which is primarily made up of carbon dioxide, at a rate of about 10 grams of oxygen per hour. That's roughly enough oxygen to keep a small cat or dog alive.


MOXIE is one of seven pieces of equipment that has been loaded onto the car-sized Mars 2020 rover at JPL. And while it's not the main focus of this mission — identifying soil samples for analysis and future return to Earth — it remains a critical step to be able to ultimately send a human being to Mars and bring them back.

Clearly, oxygen is critical for human life. The element is also critical for rocket propellant so that a spacecraft would not have to deal with the technical ramifications of carrying additional weight or landing with excess oxygen. If the scale model works, the next step would be to create a larger oxygen-producing plant to greet the first humans to land on the moon.

"Right now the heaviest thing we've landed on Mars is approximately a 1-ton rover, and we need hundreds of tons of oxygen," said Asad Aboobaker, 40, who served as the thermal engineer for MOXIE and recently demonstrated the equipment for dot.LA. The federally funded research and development center leads the Mars 2020 mission and also won the contract to build MOXIE.

Should MOXIE succeed, it is likely to have impacts on the commercial aerospace world as well as science. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, which is based in Hawthorne, Calif., has set an "aspirational" goal of sending humans to Mars in 2024 as settlers, but under the aerospace company's current plan, those humans would likely never return to the Earth.

"MOXIE is a small step toward that (return), but a very important step," Aboobaker said, noting that the "small-scale oxygen plant" would have to scale up significantly to 2 kilograms of oxygen per hour.

Asad Aboobaker, 40, who served as the thermal engineer for MOXIE and helped build the system at JPL, shows the version of MOXIE that will remain on Earth while a flight-ready version is scheduled to travel to the Mars 2020 rover this summer.

Photo by Tami Abdollah

Such a large system would need to be sent to Mars years before humans would ultimately arrive, so that oxygen could autonomously be generated and be ready for the arrival of humans.

The planets align every 26 months in a way that allows for a spacecraft's launch to Mars. So the first several Mars missions with human crews would likely use two consecutive launch windows, with the first putting necessary infrastructure in place, said Michael Hecht, who is the principal investigator for MOXIE. Hecht leads the MOXIE project out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"MOXIE is built for a specific purpose. It's a prototype for a future, larger and more powerful system that will save us the trouble of transporting all that oxygen to Mars," Hecht said. "Instead, that first mission will carry a full-scale MOXIE-style oxygen generation plant and an empty tank, and MOXIE will use the time while waiting for the astronauts to fill the tank with oxygen."

As a technology, the 17-kilogram-sized MOXIE creates oxygen from carbon dioxide by pumping the gas from the Martian atmosphere through its electrolysis system to break up molecules ultimately into breathable oxygen. The engineering was particularly tricky because the electrolysis system works at 800 degrees Celsius or a blistering 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit. Aluminum, which is a material that's often used in engineering, however, melts at 660 degrees. So they ended up using chromium, which melts at more than double that temperature.

Because MOXIE requires a significant amount of power to operate and is not the central objective for the 2020 mission, it will be utilized intermittently and "opportunistically," with an eye toward identifying how it might operate during different times of day, weather or other conditions, Abookbaker said.

While MOXIE cost more than $40 million, according to a 2017 NASA Inspector General report, it was a relative drop in the bucket compared to the roughly $2 billion Mars 2020 project.

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Can the company that popularized the online shopping cart reinvent the real thing?

Amazon unveiled its first smart grocery cart on Tuesday morning. The new "Dash Cart," as it's known, uses cameras, sensors and a scale to automatically detect and log items on a digital display behind the handle. The technology makes it possible for shoppers to leave the store without going through a traditional checkout line.

The end result is similar to the Amazon Go grocery and convenience stores, without the elaborate technical infrastructure of those stores. The Dash Cart works on its own, requiring no sensors in the shelves or specialized cameras overhead.

In that way, it solves at least part of the mystery of why Amazon has been developing conventional grocery stores, without the Amazon Go technology.

"We built this predominantly as an alternative to things like express checkout, where you still end up waiting in line, or fumbling with self-checkout machines," said Dilip Kumar, Amazon's vice president of physical retail and technology, in an interview this week. "The experience will be designed to be seamless, very convenient, very easy for customers to understand."

Amazon's new "Dash Cart" uses sensors to determine which items are placed in a cart, allowing shoppers to check out automatically, without going through a traditional line. (Amazon Photo)

The Dash Cart is slated to debut later this year at the company's new Woodland Hills, Calif., grocery store, which is currently being used to fulfill delivery orders.

Unlike the Amazon Go technology, the Dash Cart won't entirely replace traditional grocery checkouts in the stores where it's used. Amazon says it's designed for small- to medium-sized grocery trips. The cart fits one to two grocery bags.

Amazon is one of many retailers and technology companies looking to streamline the process of shopping and checking out in physical stores. Such initiatives are driven in part by a quest for new cost efficiencies given the traditionally razor-thin profit margins in the grocery business. The approach has taken on added significance given requirements for social distancing and contact-less transactions due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Smart shopping cart startup Veeve, for example, was started in 2018 by a team that includes two former Amazon employees who were among the first to experience the Amazon Go technology. They saw an opportunity to take the checkout-free shopping experience to a wider market with smart carts instead.

Microsoft and Kroger, meanwhile, have been testing a system that lets shoppers scan items with their smartphones as they shop, for a faster checkout experience.

The global market for smart shopping carts is projected to grow to more than $3 billion by 2025, from $737 million last year, according to a report by ResearchandMarkets.com.

It wouldn't be hard to imagine the Amazon Dash Cart ultimately making its way into Whole Foods Stores. It would be more of a stretch, but not entirely impossible, to conceive of Amazon licensing the technology to other retailers. It began selling its Amazon Go technology to other businesses earlier this year.

But the company isn't detailing its plans for the Dash Cart beyond the expected debut in Southern California later this year.

"We will see where this goes," Kumar said when we asked about those possibilities. "We think customers will love this experience, and then we'll just build from there."

Privacy and personalized ad targeting are two of the big questions surrounding this kind of technology. For example, if a shopper puts a can of tuna in the cart, then takes it out, will that same person later see an ad on Amazon.com suggesting a different brand of tuna? Kumar acknowledged that such targeting is possible "in theory," but said that's not the focus of the Dash Cart.

"The focus of the cart is to be able to generate accurate receipts and make sure that we save customers time," he said.

Another big question is the impact of this type of automation on jobs. On this topic, Amazon's retail automation has been a lightning rod for criticism.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) called Amazon a "clear and present danger to millions of good jobs" when the company unveiled its first Amazon Go Grocery store earlier this year. Amazon disputed that contention at the time, calling it "both incorrect and misleading to suggest that Amazon destroys jobs."

The company maintains that the smart grocery cart will not reduce the number of employees in the store, compared to traditional grocery stores of similar size. In addition to having traditional grocery checkouts, the company says it will have associates dedicated to helping customers use the Dash Carts.

Shoppers who use the Dash Carts will scan a QR code in the Amazon app to log in to the cart before they begin. The system will automatically charge them using the stored card in their Amazon account when they exit through a special "Dash Cart Lane." They'll get a receipt via email after they leave.

Similar to the Amazon Go technology, which knows if a product is replaced on the shelf, Amazon says the Dash Cart will also sense when items are taken out, removing them from the list.

In addition, the cart will integrate with Alexa Shopping Lists, showing shoppers the items they've saved to buy via Amazon's voice assistant, indicating the aisle in the store where the items are located, and letting shoppers check items off as they go.

Amazon's "Dash" brand has been used previously for products that automate e-commerce ordering, including the now discontinued Amazon Dash gadgets and its Amazon Dash replenishment service, which is embedded in household appliances and office equipment, automatically reordering detergent or ink, for example, when it senses that supplies are running low.

This story first appeared in GeekWire.

Just 140 startup deals were completed in the second quarter of 2020 in greater Los Angeles, according to the latest PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor released Tuesday. That is the fewest since Pitchbook and the National Venture Capital Association began tracking the data in 2014.

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If you've ever watched Shark Tank and wished that you could hop in the waters and invest alongside Mark Cuban and Mr. Wonderful, Going Public may be just the show for you.

The new series will showcase five companies preparing to go public on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Over the course of 10 episodes, viewers will follow the company founders as they promote their offering and receive feedback and advice from mentors, professional investors and other executives. Those watching at home who think they've spotted a winner will have a chance to get in on the action at the initial public offering (IPO) price for the companies that end up going public.

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