NASA just announced what the Mars 2020 rover will carry to the Martian surface, and one of them sounds like pure sci-fi: MOXIE, a machine that sucks in carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and pumps out pure oxygen for use in rocket fuel—or someday, for humans to breathe.
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) is one of seven instruments NASA will strap to the 2020 rover, totaling approximately $130 million in value. Mars Exploration Project lead scientist Michael Meyer didn't dance around the possibilities this device could open up:
It's extremely useful for future production of rocket fuel, or for when humans explore Mars. It's a real step forward in helping future human exploration of Mars, being able to produce oxygen on the surface of Mars.
Of course, when NASA lands the device on Mars in 2020, it will serve mainly as a test device, exploring how the Martian atmosphere, gravity, and other environmental conditions affect oxygen production. As NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier explained:
We're not so much using the oxygen, but seeing can we generate it, what's the production rate, what's the efficiency. Those are the general kinds of things we're looking at with this in-situ device. If you can make propellant for a craft's ascent stage to get off Mars, that really changes the mission design. Or if you can cache and store oxygen before a crew arrives, and have a habitable environment when we get there.
Similar tech has been used for years to make oxygen from carbon dioxide on the International Space Station, but 2020 will be the first time NASA plants such a device on another planet. Sounds like something out of the pages of a science fiction novel—say, Andy Weir's The Martian.