When going to space, pack light — that’s what NASA is planning for the proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars. In an effort to conserve space and keep payloads as light as possible, the agency is looking into new methods to manufacture various goods on Mars rather than shipping them from Earth.

One of NASA’s epic Mars recruitment posters shows space colonists will have quite a bit of DIY on their hands.
Image credits NASA / KSC.

Going to space is hard work, but staying there is even harder. So, NASA has decided to fund two STRIs (Space Technology Research Institutes) to help them with the task at hand. These novel multi-disciplinary research institutions led by universities will tackle issues essential to humanity’s expansion into space. NASA’s key concerns are to make sure that astronauts, and later colonists, can make it into space and be relatively self-sufficient once there — in other words, that they have the right materials to settle space and the tools to make whatever they need on-site without having to wait on shipments from Earth.

Explore, expand, exploit

Fans of 4x games will know that the faster you can access new resources and start secondary centers of production, the better. It seems that NASA has taken the lesson to heart since they’ve decided to invest a lot of money into two research bodies which will help humanity send humans to Mars in 2030, and establish a colony there and on more planets in the future.

For this purpose, the agency has selected the Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering Space (CUBES), which intends to focus on the production of food, fuel, and medicine for the mission, and the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP), concerned mainly with the development of building materials to be used on Mars. Each STRI will receive US$15 million in funding from NASA to help them reach these objectives.

And the best part about science? It’s the gift that keeps on giving. The fact that these STRIs are researching what is essentially space-tailored science doesn’t mean their work won’t be applicable here on good ole’ Earth.

“While the research goals of the CUBES institute are to benefit deep-space planetary exploration, these goals also lend themselves to practical Earth-based applications. For example, the emphasis on using carbon dioxide as the base component for materials manufacturing has relevance to carbon dioxide management on Earth,” a NASA statement reads.

“Results of [US-COPM] research will have broad societal impacts, as well. Rapid development and deployment of the advanced materials created by the institute could support an array of Earthly applications and benefit the U.S. manufacturing sector.”

Ah NASA… Researching space tech to make the US great again. I love it.

Getting blood from a stone

And because you can’t make new stuff without starting from raw stuff, the agency has also enrolled the help of University of Central Florida professor Sudipta Seal to develop a refining method called molten regolith electrolysis. This is actually a crazily awesome process through which astronauts and future colonists will shovel Martial soil (known as regolith) into a reaction chamber, heat it up to 3,000°F (1650 °C), and extract oxygen and molten metals. They can breathe or burn the first and use the second to 3D print the stuff they need.

A very big stone. Lots of blood to be had.
Image credits Reimund Bertrams.

“It’s essentially using additive-manufacturing techniques to make constructible blocks. UCF is collaborating with NASA to understand the science behind it,” Seal said regarding the research.

It’s not very different from a method used in ore refining here on Earth. At those temperatures, the chemical bonds between atoms locked in the regolith will be weak enough that two oppositely charged electrodes in the reaction chamber can detach oxygen from metal. On a planet where you’d have no idea how to start mining and there’s no free oxygen, this process might be a game changer. And the best part is that Mars’ soil is relatively abundant in both iron and oxygen — that’s why it’s so rusty red — so dirt-refining might be quite lucrative.

All this research will add up towards an essential goal — lighter initial payloads. It would be virtually impossible for today’s crafts to carry everything a burgeoning settlement will require, and constant shipping would be prohibitively expensive at its best or dangerously unreliable at its worst. Having the means to produce food, construction materials, and basic goods on-site should thus ensure that colonists want for nothing on alien planets.

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