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Making Rocket Propellants from Martian Air (1978)
11 October 2015 David S. F. Portree


Water frost on Utopia Planitia as imaged by the Viking 2 lander. The horizon appears tilted because Viking 2 alighted with one of its three foot pads on a large rock. Image credit: NASA

In the late 1970s, through the initiative of its director, Bruce Murray, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) studied a range of possible Mars missions, including Mars Sample Return (MSR). Murray and others at the Pasadena, California-based lab were aware that funds for new Mars missions would be hard to come by; the U.S. economy was under strain and NASA, JPL's main customer, was devoting most of its resources to developing the Space Shuttle.

In addition, equivocal data from the astrobiology experiments on the twin Vikings, the first successful Mars landers, had been interpreted as negative, helping to damp public enthusiasm for the Red Planet. Would-be Mars explorers reasoned that, if an MSR mission would stand a chance of being accepted, then they would need to find technologies and techniques that could dramatically cut its anticipated cost.

In July-August 1978, two years after the Vikings landed and looked for life on Mars, three engineers at JPL - Robert Ash, a visiting faculty fellow from Old Dominion University in Virginia, and JPL staffers William Dowler and Giulio Varsi - reported on a small study they had conducted of one such cost-saving technology: specifically, making MSR Earth-return rocket propellants from martian resources. Using Earth-return propellants made on Mars would greatly reduce the MSR spacecraft's mass at launch from Earth, permitting it to be launched on a small, relatively cheap launch vehicle.

Earlier researchers had proposed using Mars resources to make rocket propellants, but Ash, Dowler, and Varsi were the first to base their study on data collected on and in orbit of Mars. The Viking landers had confirmed that martian air is made up almost entirely of carbon dioxide, and had found that the planet's rusty red dirt contains an appreciable amount of water. The Viking 2 lander, at rest on the northern plain of Utopia Planitia, had imaged water frost on the surface in winter (image at top of post). In addition, the twin Viking orbiters had imaged water ice clouds high in the atmosphere and polygonal terrain resembling that found in near-polar permafrost regions on Earth.

Ash, Dowler, and Varsi examined three propellant combinations that would exploit resources the Vikings had found on Mars. The first, carbon monoxide fuel and oxygen oxidizer, could be produced by splitting ubiquitous martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. They rejected this combination, however; while easy to produce, it could yield only mediocre performance.

Hydrogen/oxygen, on the other hand, was a high-performance propellant combination containing more than three times the propulsive energy of carbon monoxide/oxygen. It could be produced by collecting and electrolyzing (splitting) martian water, but Ash, Dowler, and Varsi rejected the combination because a heavy, electricity-hungry cooling system would be needed to keep the hydrogen in usable liquid form. This requirement would, they estimated, negate the mass-savings of making Earth-return propellants on Mars.

The third combination they examined was methane/oxygen, which could be produced on Mars using a process discovered in 1897 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Sabatier. Combining a small amount of hydrogen brought from Earth with martian atmospheric carbon dioxide in the presence of a nickel or ruthenium catalyst would yield methane and water. The methane would be pumped to the MSR Earth-return rocket stage fuel tank and the water would be split using electricity to produce oxygen and hydrogen. The oxygen would be pumped to the MSR Earth-return oxidizer tank and the hydrogen would be reacted with more martian atmospheric carbon dioxide to produce more methane and water.

Ash, Dowler, and Varsi favored methane/oxygen because it would provide 80% of hydrogen/oxygen's propulsive energy, and because methane remains in liquid form at typical martian surface temperatures. They estimated that launching a one-kilogram Mars sample directly to Earth (that is, with no stop in Mars orbit to rendezvous with and transfer the sample to a Earth-fueled Earth Return Vehicle) would require manufacture of 3780 kilograms of methane/oxygen, and calculated that a Mars surface stay-time of at least 400 days would be necessary to allow sufficient time to manufacture adequate quantities of propellants.

The 1978 JPL study would inspire many other mission designers to tap resources the twin Vikings had confirmed exist on Mars. In 1982, for example, at the 1982 American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics/American Astronautical Society Astrodynamics conference Science Applications Incorporated engineers presented a paper on use of Mars resources in automated rocket-propelled ballistic hoppers and propeller-driven airplanes. The inhabited base scenario developed at the 2nd The Case for Mars Conference (1984) relied heavily on extraction of resources from the martian atmosphere for both life-support consumables and rocket propellants.


Conceptual design of a large system for extracting propellants and life-support consumables from martian air. Image credit: C. Emmart/Boulder Center for Science and Policy

"Feasibility of Rocket Propellant Production on Mars," R. L. Ash, W. L. Dowler, and G. Varsi, Acta Astronautica, Vol. 5, July-August 1978, pp. 705-724

"In Situ Propellant Production: The Key to Global Surface Exploration of Mars?" AIAA-82-1477, S. Hoffman, J. Niehoff, M. Stancati; paper presented at the AIAA/AAS Astrodynamics Conference in San Diego, California, 9-11 August 1982

The Case for Mars: Concept Development of a Mars Research Station, JPL Publication 86-28, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 15 April 1986

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