A solar-powered device on Mars could make rocket fuel from waste water

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Spain’s Tekniker is working with ESA on a piece of equipment that could help make future Mars missions more economical. To survive on Mars, future colonists will need to use all available resources as efficiently as possible. This also means recycling wherever possible, and for travel between Earth and Mars, in time the fuel for spacecraft return journeys should be produced on Mars. A team at the Spanish technology centre Tekniker is working on a system that would use sunlight to produce fuel from the Martian astronauts’ waste water, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

How the system works
How the system works

According to a technician, the special reactor would use the 95% carbon dioxide air in the Martian atmosphere and the astronauts’ waste water to produce fuel, which would be powered by sunlight.

The so-called “photo-electrochemical” system would produce hydrocarbons, including methane, and alcohols from carbon dioxide and waste water in the Martian atmosphere. In the process, the wastewater filtered through the system would also be purified and recovered, so that the device would perform water purification in parallel with fuel production.

Jean-Christophe Berton, ESA’s Technical Supervisor for the project, believes that the research could provide the European Space Agency with valuable experience in the production of propellants on Mars, but also useful ideas for powering hard-to-reach facilities on Earth. In addition, the results of the research could be used to develop technologies to decarbonise the Earth. The research project is funded by ESA’s Open Space Innovation Platform.

In parallel with the successive moon missions and planned bases, the idea of conquering Mars has also regained momentum, although the planet is a much more challenging target than Earth’s celestial companion because of its distance. Moreover, as Mars only comes close enough to Earth to make it profitable to launch a spacecraft every two years, missions are often delayed by years – most recently, the ExoMars programme was postponed until at least 2026 because of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

So under the current circumstances, it is likely to be many years before humans set foot on Mars, let alone settle on its surface, so we won’t see anything like this equipment anytime soon, or at least not on the red planet.

Source: ESA

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