June 13th, 2019

NASA’s Mars 2020 Will Blaze a Trail – for Humans

This artist’s concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will carry a number of technologies that could make Mars safer and easier to explore for humans. Credit: NASA

When a female astronaut first sets foot on the Moon in 2024, the historic moment will represent a step toward another NASA first: eventually putting humans on Mars. NASA’s latest robotic mission to the Red Planet, Mars 2020, aims to help future astronauts brave that inhospitable landscape.

While the science goal of the Mars 2020 rover is to look for signs of ancient life – it will be the first spacecraft to collect samples of the Martian surface, caching them in tubes that could be returned to Earth on a future mission – the vehicle also includes technology that paves the way for human exploration of Mars.

The atmosphere on Mars is mostly carbon dioxide and extremely thin (about 100 times less dense than Earth’s), with no breathable oxygen. There’s no water on the surface to drink, either. The landscape is freezing, with no protection from the Sun’s radiation or from passing dust storms. The keys to survival will be technology, research and testing.

Mars 2020 will help on all those fronts. When it launches in July of 2020, the spacecraft will carry the latest scientific and engineering tools, which are coming together as the rover is built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Here’s a closer look:

Touchdown, Oxygen, Water, Spacesuits, Shelter

June 11th, 2019

Device seeks to brew oxygen on Mars from dangerous salt

Professor John Coates, PhD, describing the process of how the device works with the two chambers separating the oxygen from the water using electricity and a Chlorate solution at the Coates Lab at UC Berkeley on October 20.2015.
Photo: Franchon Smith, The Chronicle

Having discovered flowing, liquid water on the once-imagined arid surface of Mars, NASA scientists are looking to the next missing element needed for human habitability on the Red Planet: oxygen.

Finding a way to produce oxygen on the planet is vital if the space agency is to fulfill its goal of sending humans to Mars sometime during the 2030s, they say.

They have considered sending microbes on the journey to fill large bio domes to be built by the astronauts on the planet’s surface. Another idea they’ve pondered is sending along a large machine to split up the oxygen-containing carbon dioxide that makes up most of Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Then there is the Bay Area scientist who has NASA’s ear with his idea that a dangerous salt compound believed to exist on Mars’ surface can be converted into breathable oxygen.

The compound, a perchlorate, is known to be a threat to human health on Earth, interfering with the production of human growth hormones.

John Coates, a microbiologist at UC Berkeley, has patented a mechanism he says can turn the perchlorate into oxygen fit for humans. Throughout the development process, he consulted NASA scientists who see Coates’ invention as a partial answer to the oxygen issue, but not the entire solution.

“What happens if astronauts are 10 miles from home (base) and they have a big problem and need oxygen? That is the niche that the perchlorate would fill,” said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. “When you are (on Mars) out in middle of nowhere, scooping up a bag of dirt to produce oxygen would be easy to do.”

May 24th, 2019

Comet Inspires Chemistry for Making Breathable Oxygen on Mars

In Giapis’s reactor, carbon dioxide is converted into molecular oxygen.
Credit: Caltech

Science fiction stories are chock full of terraforming schemes and oxygen generators for a very good reason—we humans need molecular oxygen (O2) to breathe, and space is essentially devoid of it. Even on other planets with thick atmospheres, O2 is hard to come by.

So, when we explore space, we need to bring our own oxygen supply. That is not ideal because a lot of energy is needed to hoist things into space atop a rocket, and once the supply runs out, it is gone.

One place molecular oxygen does appear outside of Earth is in the wisps of gas streaming off comets. The source of that oxygen remained a mystery until two years ago when Konstantinos P. Giapis, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, and his postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao, proposed the existence of a new chemical process that could account for its production. Giapis, along with Tom Miller, professor of chemistry, have now demonstrated a new reaction for generating oxygen that Giapis says could help humans explore the universe and perhaps even fight climate change at home. More fundamentally though, he says the reaction represents a new kind of chemistry discovered by studying comets.

October 30th, 2018

How NASA Will Use Robots to Create Rocket Fuel From Martian Soil

This artist’s rendering shows excavating robots that may one day operate on Mars, long before humans ever set foot on the planet.
Illustration: Marek Denko/NoEmotion

The year is 2038. After 18 months living and working on the surface of Mars, a crew of six explorers boards a deep-space transport rocket and leaves for Earth. No humans are staying behind, but work goes on without them: Autonomous robots will keep running a mining and chemical-synthesis plant they’d started years before this first crewed mission ever set foot on the planet. The plant produces water, oxygen, and rocket fuel using local resources, and it will methodically build up all the necessary supplies for the next Mars mission, set to arrive in another two years.

This robot factory isn’t science fiction: It’s being developed jointly by multiple teams across NASA. One of them is the Swamp Works Lab at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, where I am a team lead. Officially, it’s known as an in situ resource utilization (ISRU) system, but we like to call it a dust-to-thrust factory, because it turns simple dust into rocket fuel. This technology will one day allow humans to live and work on Mars—and return to Earth to tell the story.

But why synthesize stuff on Mars instead of just shipping it there from Earth? NASA invokes the “gear-ratio problem.” By some estimates, to ship a single kilogram of fuel from Earth to Mars, today’s rockets need to burn 225 kilograms of fuel in transit—launching into low Earth orbit, shooting off toward Mars, slowing down to get into Mars orbit, and finally slowing to a safe landing on the surface of Mars. We’d start with 226 kg and end with 1 kg, which makes for a 226:1 gear ratio. And the ratio stays the same no matter what we ship. We would need 225 tons of fuel to send a ton of water, a ton of oxygen, or a ton of machinery. The only way to get around that harsh arithmetic is by making our water, oxygen, and fuel on-site.

October 3rd, 2018

Learn To Farm On Mars With This Fake Martian Soil

Fig. 1. Comparison of martian simulants. (a) MAHLI image of the scooped Rocknest soil; image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. (b) Photograph of MGS-1 prototype simulant produced for this work. (c) Photograph of JSC Mars-1. (d) Photograph of MMS-1 sold by the Martian Garden company.

If you watched or read “The Martian,” and wanted to try your hand at living on Mars or becoming a Martian farmer like Mark Watney, then today is your lucky day. Astrophysicists at the University of Central Florida have developed a scientific, standardized method to create soil like future space colonies might encounter on Mars. They’re selling it for about $10 per pound (or $20 per kilogram) plus shipping.

This soil, also called simulant, is designed and created to mimic the red soil on Mars. From how fine the grains are to what minerals are present, this simulant is about as close as you can get to real Martian soil. These researchers have also created an asteroid simulant and are working on developing a wider variety of simulants, like ones to mimic soils from different parts of Mars.

The only parts of the simulants that don’t match the real thing are the toxic, carcinogenic, or otherwise dangerous components that exist in actual asteroids or in real Martian soil. “We leave out the dangerous stuff,” said Dan Britt, a physics professor and member of the UCF Planetary Sciences Group working on creating these simulants.

September 17th, 2018

Resource Utilization On Mars Could Be The Model Of Efficiency And Sustainability

ISRU system concept for autonomous robotic excavation and processing of Mars soil to extract water for use in exploration missions.
Credits: NASA

You’re an astronaut settling into your first mission on Mars, a less-than-hospitable planet to which human beings are ill-adapted. The atmosphere is over 95 percent carbon dioxide (CO2) and the temperature averages a chilly -81 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet, despite this outright hostile environment, you and your crewmates brought relatively few supplies. Bringing enough food for the whole three-year mission was cost prohibitive. Even considering the dramatically lower launch costs offered by private companies like SpaceX, it might still cost $144 million or more to send three year’s worth of food to Mars for a crew of four (assuming SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can achieve a launch cost of $3,000 per pound and one astronaut consumes one ton of food per terrestrial year). Instead, you’re equipped with a variety of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies that will allow you to convert compounds into useful materials and advanced recycling systems that will help ensure nothing is wasted.

Here on Earth, humans haven’t historically been concerned with waste. The World Bank estimates that the world’s cities will be producing nearly 2.5 billion tons of solid waste annually by 2025. Yet on Mars, where resources are scarce, we’ll be forced to treat seemingly useless materials and byproducts like valuable commodities. Fortunately, NASA has already been perfecting many important recycling and upcycling technologies on the International Space Station (ISS). The objective is to create a closed-loop system in which the outputs of a process can be used as inputs in another process in perpetuity.

November 18th, 2017

Robert Zubrin: Demonstration of Reverse Water-Gas Shift System The Mars Society

Originally posted on Facebook by Dr. Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society and also leads a for-profit company Pioneer Energy

Piloted Mars Mission RWGS System Demonstrated
Robert Zubrin
November 16, 2017

From November 14-15 2017 the R&D team at Pioneer Energy, a spinoff company of Pioneer Astronautics, conducted a 24 hour non-stop demonstration of an integrated Reverse Water Gas Shift-Methanol system. We also did a 5 hour demonstration of a system for turning the methanol into dimethyl ether. All tests were witnessed by judges from the X-Prize Carbon competition.

The RWGS was run at an average rate of 70 liters per minute CO2 and hydrogen feed. It averaged about 99% efficiency in reducing CO2 to CO, producing an exhaust that was roughly 99% CO and 1% CO2. Conversions as high as 99.8% were achieved, but system parameters were adjusted to decrease efficiency to 99% because 1% CO2 is desired in the methanol synthesis feed to improve system kinetics. Approximately 81 kg of water was produced by the RWGS in the course of the 24 hour run.

The CO from the RWGS was then fed into the methanol synthesis unit, where it was reacted with hydrogen to produce approximately 105 kg of methanol in the course of the 24 hour run. Some of the methanol product was then taken to the dimethyl ether synthesis unit, where it produced and captured in liquid form 11.8 kg of DME over a 5 hour period, for a daily production rate of 57 kg per day. Approximately 17.7 kg net of methanol was consumed to make the 11.8 kg of DME, for a combined conversion and capture efficiency of about 93%. (100% efficiency would have resulted in 12.72 kg DME, because two methanols react to produce one DME and one H2O.)

It may be noted that if the water produced by the system were electrolyzed, it would produce 72 kg of oxygen per day, or 36 metric tons over a 500 period. The methanol system would produce 52.5 metric tons of methanol. The DME system would produce 28.5 tons of DME.

Oxygen burns with DME at a stoichiometric ratio of 2.087. So if the 28.5 tons of DME produced were combined with 59.5 tons of oxygen, a total of 88 tons of useful bipropellant would be available. Alternatively, if oxygen is viewed as the limiting propellant, by combining the 36 tons of oxygen with 20 tons of DME (to run slightly fuel rich) 56 tons of useful bipropellant would be available. If the oxygen product were used in a LOX/RP engine burning at 2.8:1, at total of 49 tons of useful bipropellant would be available.

In any case, more propellant would be produced by such a system than that required for the ascent vehicle in the NASA design reference mission. Finally, it may be noted that if the RWGS system were run in parallel in a Sabatier Electrolysis (S/E) system sized to produce 48 kg of CH4 and 96 kg of O2 per day, a total of 24 tons of methane and 84 tons of oxygen would be produced, which is sufficient to fly the Mars Direct mission.

ISRU has entered a new world.

Above is a photo of the team that did it.

-Robert Zubrin