(ORDO NEWS) — When astronauts start exploring Mars, they will face numerous challenges. In addition to the time and energy it would take to get there, and all the health risks associated with long-term space missions, there are also dangers associated with the Martian environment itself.
These include the incredibly rarefied and toxic atmosphere of Mars, the high levels of radiation the planet is exposed to, and the fact that the surface of Mars is extremely cold and drier than the driest deserts on Earth.
As a result, missions to Mars will need to use local resources to provide all the essentials, a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).
To solve the problem of fuel resources, a team at Spanish innovation company Tekniker is developing a system that uses solar energy to convert astronaut wastewater into fuel. This technology could be a game-changer for deep space missions in the coming years, including the Moon, Mars and other planets.
Tekniker, headquartered in the northeast of Spain, is a research, development and innovation (R&D&I) non-profit organization focused on advanced manufacturing and information and communication technology (ICT).
This photoelectrochemical system uses high performance catalytic materials to produce hydrocarbons such as methane, carbon monoxide or alcohols from atmospheric CO2 and wastewater.
During operation, the system also treats the wastewater used, working as a water recycling method. The system is the brainchild of Tekniker telecommunications engineer Dr. Borja Poza and materials engineer Dr. Eva Gutiérrez. As Pose explained in a recent ESA press release:
“We are aiming to make the first reactor for the production of space fuel on Mars using the planet’s air, which is 95% carbon dioxide.” The reactor will be powered by sunlight and wastewater will be used to produce fuel.”
On Mars, liquid water is not readily available, but ample evidence points to the existence of subsurface ice in many regions. In line with the ISRU process, future missions will collect this ice for providing drinking water, irrigating plants, sanitation, and producing rocket fuel by splitting water molecules (O) into molecular hydrogen (H) and gaseous oxygen (O).
When cooled to cryogenic temperatures, these elements are converted into the two components of conventional hydrogen fuel – liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LOX).
Thus, the location of water ice deposits on Mars presents a major challenge for mission planners and the selection of future landing sites. There is abundant water around the poles, concentrated in ice caps, and layers of subsurface permafrost have been observed at all latitudes.
In some places around the poles, water ice has been found as little as 30 cm below the surface, making it easily accessible. Recent data from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has revealed the presence of large amounts of ice mixed with regolith at the bottom of Mars’ massive canyon system, the Valles Marineris.
There is also evidence that underground sources of ice may exist in the mid-latitudes of the planet, although this possibility remains controversial.
Jean-Christophe Berton, ESA Project Officer at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Germany, said: “The results of this work could provide ESA with valuable insights into fuel production on Mars or to power remote objects such as ground stations on Earth. It could also potentially contribute to the development of ways to decarbonize our own atmosphere.”
The project was presented in response to an open call from ESA’s Open Space Innovation Platform (OSIP), which is looking for promising new ideas for applications in space.
This system is one of many technologies that will enable astronauts and crews to live and work for extended periods on the Moon, Mars and beyond. Under these conditions, it would take weeks or months for resupply missions to reach them, making dependence on Earth impractical.
These include technologies that will allow astronauts to use the local regolith to build habitats that protect against the elements and radiation on Mars, to grow and cultivate food in these places, and to obtain oxygen gas from the Martian atmosphere.
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