A team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, in the US, has presented a proposal that could solve the problem of the supply of fuel and oxygen on the Red Planet in one fell swoop. His plan is to use a series of genetically modified microorganisms to produce both from a very abundant element on Mars: carbon dioxide.
For a human ever to set foot on the dusty Martian soil will cost us blood, sweat and tears. For astronauts, traveling to Mars will be dangerous, disgusting, and even if they succeed, they may may never be able to return to Earth again and stay there until death comes to you.
NASA is already looking for solutions so that this trip to Mars does not necessarily have to be one way. One of them is MOXIE, a small device that carries the Perseverance rover in its belly and that has already been able to extract oxygen from the martian atmosphere. That oxygen, mixed with other types of fuel, will help the rockets leave the Red Planet back to the Moon.
The American agency also plans to generate hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis of the frozen water of Mars and then use the Sabatier reaction to combine hydrogen with Martian CO2 – which makes up 95% of the atmosphere of Mars – and power create methane to use as fuel.
Unfortunately, the technology to carry out this process on a sufficient scale to be able to return a spacecraft to Earth is not yet ready. NASA says that for a rocket to be able to take four astronauts off Mars, it would take seven metric tons of fuel and 25 of oxygen. Transporting that amount of oxygen from Earth would be so expensive that it would jeopardize the mission, but today there is no other way.
Bacteria to breathe and go home
The Georgia Institute of Technology researchers’ proposal is explained in detail in this article in the journal Nature and is funded by NASA. The plan is to produce fuel with two microbes created on Earth and three resources that are already present on the red planet: carbon dioxide, sunlight, and frozen water.
“Carbon dioxide is one of the only resources available on Mars,” says lead study author Nick Kruyer. “Knowing that biology is especially good at turning CO2 into useful products makes it a good choice for creating rocket fuel.”
This rocket will take us to Marta and hopefully she can come back.
The two genetically modified microorganisms are, according to the researchers, a cyanobacterium (a type of algae) that would take CO2 from the Martian atmosphere and use sunlight to create sugars. And a modified E. coli that would be in charge of converting those sugars into 2,3-butanediol, a compound commonly used to make polymers that works as rocket fuel.
To recreate this process on Mars, scientists propose transporting plastic materials to Mars to build photobioreactors the size of four football fields. In this structure of transparent tubes, and thanks to photosynthesis, cyanobacteria will grow. According to the team, enzymes from another reactor will break down the cyanobacteria into sugars, which will be used to feed the E. coli that will produce the fuel.
“Much less energy is required for liftoff on Mars, which gave us the flexibility to consider different chemicals that are not designed for launching rockets on Earth,” says Pamela Peralta-Yahya, another of the study’s authors. “We began to consider ways to take advantage of the lower gravity on the planet and the lack of oxygen to create solutions that are not applicable for launches on Earth. ”
The researchers further note that this the process generates 44 tons of excess clean oxygen which could be reserved to support, for example, future Martian colonists.
What’s the downside
The major impediment to this technology is that it requires nearly three times as much material to be shipped to Mars as is needed for NASA’s methane solution. Although once there you will need, according to the researchers’ calculations, 32% less energy and the resupply missions would only have to carry 3.7 tons of nutrients and chemicals instead of 6.5 tons of methane each time.
What’s more, NASA to this day does not allow to send microorganisms to Mars to avoid contamination. But researchers are already thinking of possible systems to contain them without risk of leakage and will not seek NASA approval until they do.
Be that as it may, if we really want to send humans to Mars and create colonies on the Red Planet, we will need to find ways to take advantage of resources that are there. For Dr. Kruyer: “the application of biotechnology on Mars is a perfect way to take advantage of the limited resources available with minimal starting materials.”