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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On this week's episode of LA Venture, hear from Marcos Gonzalez, the managing partner at Vamos Ventures, a seed-stage venture fund which invests in Latino and diverse founders. Over half of L.A. County is Latino. A relatively new fund, investments are in the range of $100,000 to $500,000. Seems like a great time to be investing in this community! And, Vamos is hiring...

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El Segundo-based telemedicine technology provider Cloudbreak Health and Florida-based UpHealth Holdings, a digital healthcare provider, announced they will combine and go public via a SPAC in a deal that values the combined companies at $1.35 billion.

Named UpHealth, Inc., the new company aims to streamline online health care by becoming a single provider of four different services: telehealth, teletherapy, a health care appointment and management system and an online pharmacy.

UpHealth runs healthcare platform Thrasys Inc. and MedQuest Pharmacy, along with two other behavioral health companies. The merger with Cloudbreak, which under the pandemic expanded their interpretation services to remote medicine, will give the new company a foothold in almost 2,000 hospitals.

"What we wanted to do was form a business that could really be a digital infrastructure for health care across the continuum of care, right from home to hospital," said Jamey Edwards, the co-founder and CEO of Cloudbreak. Under the agreement, he will become the company's chief operating officer.

GigCapital2 expects the merger transaction to close at the start of Q1 2021. UpHealth will be publicly traded under the ticker "UPH" on the New York Stock Exchange. UpHealth's integrated care management platform serves over 5 million people, and is expected to reach 40 million over the next three years, according to the company.

Jamey Edwards, Cloudbreak

Jamey Edwards, co-founder and executive director of Cloudbreak

COVID-19 caused a meteoric growth in the use of telehealth services. In February, 0.1% of Medicare primary visits were provided through telehealth. In April, that number was nearly 44%, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Key stakeholders have seen and responded well to the benefits that telemedicine can bring, but they need a more comprehensive, integrated solution," said Al Gatmaitan, who has been named the co-chief executive officer of UpHealth. "This is what UpHealth focuses on, the adoption of digital health solutions well beyond the pandemic crisis."

The deal with the blank check company GigCapital2 gives the two digital health companies access to a wider network. UpHealth and its family of companies operate in 10 countries and their pharmacy has 13,000 e-prescribers in the U.S.


UpHealth will use the Cloudbreak platform as part of their global telehealth services to provide patients with round-the-clock care under a variety of specialties, including telepsychiatry and tele-urology. UpHealth also has contracts internationally, to provide country-wide care in India, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Edwards joined Cloudbreak in 2008 when it went from public to private. It has raised $35 million in venture funds, most recently in the first quarter of this year scoring $10 million from Columbia Partners Private Capital.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story identified Jamey Edwards as executive director of Cloudbreak, he is its CEO.

Ryan Edwards, the co-founder of Happier Camper, said he's asked all the time if his company leans on influencer marketing to promote their vintage-style trailers beloved by millennials.

With a waitlist six months out and demand growing from hotel-weary travelers, he said it isn't a priority yet.

"We almost don't need to," said Edwards.

That's because the $25,000 to $50,000 custom trailers have been a hit with a loyal fan base, and rising demand during the pandemic has only helped. Orders for compact trailers at the lower price end, including Happier Camper's 75-square-foot camper, are growing as newbie road trippers look for COVID-safe travels.

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