Microbes could help future Mars explorers make rocket fuel and oxygen on the Red Planet


Future Mars astronauts could make rocket fuel on the Red Planet using air, water and sunlight, according to a new study. The technology could fuel astronauts’ flights to Earth.

Making rocket fuel on Mars instead of shipping it from Earth could not only save billions of dollars, but could also generate tons of oxygen to help people who explore Mars breathe, the scientists added.

NASA’s current plans for departures from Mars involve rocket engines fueled by methane and liquid oxygen. However, none of these fuels exist on the Red Planet, which means they would have to be transported from Earth to propel a spacecraft into Martian orbit. Transporting the roughly 30 tonnes of methane and liquid oxygen that NASA said was needed to help a human crew take off from Mars would cost around $ 8 billion.

Related: NASA’s Perseverance rover produces oxygen on Mars for the first time

A method proposed by NASA to reduce this cost used chemical reactions to produce liquid oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere. However, this still requires transporting methane from Earth to Mars.

Now, researchers are suggesting a biologically inspired alternative that can produce both methane and liquid oxygen from Martian resources. Not only that, it could generate excess oxygen to help support human life.

“A biotechnology-based in situ use strategy for the production of rocket boosters on Mars is not overdone,” Pamela Peralta-Yahya, study lead author, Georgia synthetic biologist, told Space.com Institute of Technology.

The new technique would consist of sending two microbes to Mars. The first would be cyanobacteria, which would use sunlight to create sugars through photosynthesis after receiving carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and water extracted from Martian ice. The second would be genetically modified E. coli bacteria that would ferment those sugars into a rocket booster called 2,3-butanediol, which is currently used on Earth to help make rubber.

Although 2,3-butanediol is a weaker rocket fuel than methane and liquid oxygen, the gravity on Mars is only a third of that felt on Earth. “You need a lot less energy to take off to Mars, which has given us the opportunity to consider different chemicals that are not designed for launching rockets to Earth,” Peralta-Yahya said in a statement. “We have started to consider ways to take advantage of the planet’s lower gravity and lack of oxygen to create solutions that are not relevant to ground launches.”

This strategy also requires the sending of enzymes to Mars to digest the cyanobacteria and release their sugars. Industrial separation techniques are also necessary to extract the 2,3-butanediol from the E. coli fermentation broth.

Researchers envision a rocket fuel plant the size of four football fields. They estimated that their method would use 32% less energy than the strategy that involved shipping methane from Earth and also generate 44 tons of excess oxygen to support human crews. However, it would weigh three times as much.

Still, the scientists noted that they could optimize their method further, for example by increasing microbial productivity, so that it would use 59% less energy than the strategy of shipping methane from Earth and weigh 13%. less, while generating 20 tonnes of surplus. oxygen.

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

Scientists detailed their findings online Oct. 25 in the journal Nature Communications.

Originally posted on Space.com.

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