Natural resources on Mars could produce rocket fuel, scientists say

A new study has discovered that future astronauts on Mars may be able to use its natural resources to help make rocket fuel that can help bring them back to Earth.

As reported by Space.com, scientists have described their findings on the matter in the journal Nature Communications and have shared certain suggestions that could save billions of dollars in the mission to get our astronauts home.

As it stands, NASA plans to use rocket engines powered by both methane and liquid oxygen to leave Mars. The problem? None of these exist naturally on Mars, meaning that “30 or so tons” of methane and liquid oxygen would be needed to be transported from Earth to Mars for the return journey. NASA estimates that this part of the process could cost up to $ 8 billion.

NASA has explored the idea of ​​reducing these costs by using chemical reactions to produce liquid oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, but methane would still be needed to be transported from Earth to Mars.

These aforementioned scientists have proposed an alternative solution that would not only allow astronauts to produce methane and liquid oxygen from Martian resources, but the process would also provide extra oxygen for them to use.

Instead of transporting tons of methane and liquid oxygen, astronauts would take two microbes with them on their journey to Mars. The first – cyanobacteria – would “use sunlight to create sugar via photosynthesis after given carbon dioxide from Mars ‘atmosphere and water taken from Mars’ ice.” The other – a genetically modified E. coli bacterium – would “ferment these sugars into a rocket propellant called 2,3-butanediol, which is currently used on Earth to help make rubber.”

Sights and Sounds of Mars from NASA’s Perseverance Rover

2,3-butanediol is weaker rocket fuel than methane, but Mars’ gravity is only one-third that of Earth, which would make this solution a good starting point.

“You need much less energy to fly on Mars, which gave us the flexibility to consider various chemicals not designed for rocket launch on Earth,” senior author Pamela Peralta-Yahya said in a statement. “We began to consider ways to take advantage of the planet’s lower gravity and lack of oxygen to create solutions that are not relevant to Earth’s launches.”

Enzymes would also be needed to be brought from Earth, which could digest the cyanobacteria and release their sugars, and industrial separation techniques would have to be used to “extract 2,3-butanediol from E. coli fermentation broth.”

A proposed rocket fuel plant on Mars that would span “four football fields” would be built and it would “use 32% less power than the strategy that involved transporting methane from Earth and generating 44 tons of excess oxygen to support human crews” However, it would weigh three times as much. “

The researchers note that further optimizations can increase microbial productivity to use 59% less power and weigh 13% less, all the while “still generating 20 tons of excess oxygen.”

“Given the particular benefits that the biological process provides, such as the generation of excess oxygen for colony formation, we should start thinking about how to construct microbes for their safe use on Mars,” Peralta-Yahya said.

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Adam Bankhurst is a news writer for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBankhurst and on Rich.

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