BROOMFIELD, Colo. (CBS4) – Many of the workers at the Air Squared in Broomfield came together Thursday morning to watch the grand arrival of the Perseverance Rover on Mars. On board was a piece of their efforts, years in the making.
“It’s really crazy to think about. That something I’ve worked on is on another planet,” said John Wilson an engineer for Air Squared.READ MORE: Perseverance Rover Carries Kendrick Castillo’s Name To Mars
“Now we’re the first oil-free compressor company to have a compressor on two planets,” volunteered CEO Bryce Shaffer.
It started back in 2015, when people from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory contacted Air Squared with interest in their scroll compressors.
“So they just came to us and said can you develop a really rough crude prototype to prove that we can compress the Martian atmospheric pressure to earth’s atmospheric pressure,” said Wilson. “You’re trying to get something to Mars, it needs to be lightweight and it needs to be efficient. So that’s one reason that the scroll compressor is kind of ideal for that application.”
The fact that they do not require oil is also important, temperature variation being one issue.
The compressor is part of what’s called the MOXIE system, an acronym for Mars Oxygen In Situ Utilization Experiment. NASA is trying to create oxygen on Mars, which has an atmosphere of 95 percent carbon dioxide. In the movie “The Martian” Matt Daman referred to an “oxygenator,” which is fictional, but JPL engineers are also calling the MOXIE system an oxygenator in lighter moments.READ MORE: ‘Super Exciting’: Colorado Scientists That Helped Perseverance Rover Mission Celebrate Mars Landing
The system starts with the Air Squared compressor. Its job is to compress the carbon dioxide saturated air to the level of the earth’s atmosphere. Then with a process called solid oxide electrolysis, electricity will separate oxygen from the carbon dioxide producing oxygen and carbon monoxide. The oxygen can then be stored in tanks and used for human respiration as well as fuel to help rockets leave the surface of Mars for home when the time comes.
The MOXIE system, which is of small scale for the experiment, is now on the rover on the surface of Mars. The system will eventually have to be much larger to create enough oxygen.
“We’ve started one for a scaled up version, so 100 times the flow rate of this compressor,” said Wilson.
Those big systems would be launched to Mars about two years before human arrival.
“They would have tanks that would be operating constantly and storing oxygen for when humans to eventually get there.”
Testing of the MOXIE system will begin in about a month. That’s because power on the rover is limited. First will come tests, then the rover will deploy its unique helicopter for a look around. Later comes more experiments, including the MOXIE system.
“The landing was awesome and it’s great to see it made it there safely, but I can’t really sleep at night until this compressor turns on and it’s operating properly,” said Wilson. “Now the compressor needs to work. So hopefully no news is good news right?” smiles Shaffer, who jokes that he does not want a call from The JPL.