NASA team wants to make rocket fuel from Mar­tian soil

Tehran Times - - SCIENCE -

Hu­man­ity is build­ing pow­er­ful rock­ets like the SpaceX BFR and NASA Space Launch Sys­tem that can take a pay­load far away from Earth. How­ever, mak­ing the re­turn trip means you have to lug a lot more fuel with you. Ef­forts to send hu­mans to Mars in the com­ing decades would be helped if we could make fuel on the red planet. That may be more fea­si­ble than we thought. NASA team lead Kurt Leucht has ex­plained how the agency might use Mar­tian soil to make the fuel as­tro­nauts need to get home af­ter a mis­sion.

Ac­cord­ing to Leucht, it’s best to make what­ever you can at the desti­na­tion be­cause of the in­escapable re­al­i­ties of physics. The “gear-ra­tio” for Mars is 226:1, mean­ing ev­ery kilo­gram of ma­te­rial you send re­quires a rocket to burn 225 kilo­grams of fuel. That’s true for any ma­te­rial — wa­ter, food, sci­en­tific equip­ment, peo­ple, and even re­serve fuel for the re­turn trip. With pay­loads be­ing so ex­pen­sive, it makes sense to pro­duce what­ever you can on Mars. This is known as in situ re­source uti­liza­tion (ISRU).

If you’re de­ter­mined to make fuel on Mars, you’ll want to find a source of wa­ter. Wa­ter mol­e­cules con­tain hy­dro­gen and oxy­gen, which you can split up to make fuel. You won’t come across many large chunks of wa­ter ice on Mars (the poles are mostly car­bon diox­ide ice), but the soil might have more than enough. Un­der the dusty sur­face layer, many re­gions of Mars have sig­nif­i­cant de­posits of wa­ter. Leucht notes that gyp­sum sand dunes in the lower lat­i­tudes are about 8 per­cent wa­ter.

NASA calls the process of mak­ing fuel from Mar­tian re­golith “dust-to-thrust,” and it’s work­ing on ro­bots that can po­ten­tially do all the heavy lift­ing be­fore hu­mans even land on Mars. The Re­golith Ad­vanced Sur­face Sys­tems Op­er­a­tions Robot (RASSOR) uses two op­pos­ing bucket drums with mul­ti­ple dig­ging scoops to gather up ma­te­rial as the wheels drive the robot slowly for­ward. NASA de­signed RASSOR to op­er­ate in a low-grav­ity en­vi­ron­ment — the drums spin in op­po­site di­rec­tion to can­cel out most of the dig­ging force.

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