NASA’s yet unnamed sequel to the Curiosity rover has potentially quite a long mission ahead of it. In addition to searching for signs of life, collecting geological samples, and analyzing past climates, beginning in 2021 the rover will attempt to produce oxygen from the CO2-rich martian atmosphere. Being able to produce oxygen for breathing and rocket fuel right there on the Martian surface is absolutely critical for human exploration of the Red Planet. At least if we want people to survive on the surface beyond just a few days.
The rover’s Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument will be capable of producing oxygen at a rate of 10 grams per hour or 876 kg per year. Now, of course, MOXIE probably won’t be running continuously, and will eventually run out of power or otherwise break down. But, just for the sake of absurd curiousity, how long would MOXIE actually have to run to produce an Earth-equivalent amount of oxygen on Mars? How long would it take this compact-car sized rover to terraform an entire planet?
As we gave away in the title (oops): about 334 trillion years. That’s roughly 24,000 times the age of the known universe. To produce this ridiculous estimate we simply multiplied the mass of the Earth’s atmosphere times 0.2 since about 20% of the atmosphere is oxygen, then divided by four since the martian surface is about one fourth as extensive as the Earth’s. That yielded 292 quadrillion kg. Next, we divided by 876 kg to get the number of years our poor rover would have to continuously pump out O2. What a job that would be.
It’s a rough estimate, but I’m going to say that terraforming Mars with a single rover is probably not a realistic goal. But it will represent our first baby step toward creating a more habitable planet beyond Earth, which is itself pretty exciting. Not to mention all the other cool stuff this rover will be able to do. I say let the alien invasion of Mars begin! Oh, it already has? Right.