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Bringing Mars into the Iron Age

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Bringing Mars into the Iron Age

Science base could quickly become self-powered

March 3, 1999: A metal-making process known to the ancient Romans could be pressed into service to bring Mars into the Iron Age - and start opening the solar system to human habitation.

"If you look at the soil composition of Mars, the one thing that really strikes you is that it's 5 to 14 percent iron oxide," said Dr. Peter Curreri, a materials scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "It's almost ore-grade material."

Right: A Mars lander generates propellant for the trip home. In this scheme, a small nuclear reactor (foreground) and a few acres of solar cells (right, rear) power the vehicle. (NASA/Johnson)

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Using Mars ore, Curreri says, early explorers could build receivers to generate electricity from radio waves beamed from a mother ship in Mars orbit. While NASA does not have a program to put humans on Mars, it is developing technologies and mission concepts for such a possibility.

A gleam in the eye
"What really put the gleam in my eye," said Curreri, "when I got into space 20 years ago as a graduate student, was the concept that if you can process materials in space for use in space, you can really open up the frontier. Putting a manufacturing device on the Moon or Mars can provide products that weigh 20 times or more the weight of the propellants to deliver it. That becomes a very powerful lever."

There's gold in them thar hills. Well, it's probably there in traces, but something more important is closer: iron and oxygen - locked up as rust - that could help a Mars exploration base stand on its own feet. (NASA/JPL)

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Curreri's NASA career has focused on learning how to process materials in the microgravity environment of Earth orbit. Now he is looking to the planets where processes would take place in gravity fields less than that of Earth.

In a recent study, Curreri and Dr. David Criswell of the University of Houston borrowed from several concepts to provide a new twist on making Mars habitable. They presented the results, "Potential for In Situ Rectenna Production on Mars," at a recent space development conference in Albuquerque, N.M.

Left: Paddle-like solar arrays turn sunlight into electricity for the Solar Clipper, a Mars spacecraft which can hold a crew. (NASA)

Curreri's study has several drivers, including the high price of the manned Mars mission proposed in 1989 and a requirement to develop a non-nuclear Mars mission option.

The high price tag spurred Mars supporters to look at the possibility of using local materials to make propellants for the return trip. The non-nuclear option led to the Solar Clipper. This combines an ion drive with large solar cell arrays proposed in new NASA studies of solar power satellites, another 1970s idea. The unmanned Solar Clipper would boost itself to a high Earth orbit over the period of a year. After the crew arrives on a small, faster craft, the Solar Clipper would use a chemical rocket to make the final boost to Mars.

In several schemes under study, the manned crew would be preceded to Mars by an unmanned propellant factory. This craft would refine the Martian carbon dioxide atmosphere and mixed it with hydrogen (brought along or electrolzyed from water ice in the polar caps) to make liquid oxygen and methane to power the crew's return to Mars orbit.

Unleaded or regular?
"Say we had to make a trip to California by car," Curreri explained. "We could build a tractor-trailer rig and haul a huge tank of gas to get us out there and back. It's like that now with rockets because we have to take the propellant for the return trip all the way out there. Or, we could build a smaller car and refill when we get there."

Right: This diagram depicts how large a solar array would have to be at Mars to match the power output of a 30-meter-square (approximately 100x100 ft) of solar cells in Earth orbit (LEO). While the array only needs to be 2.3 times larger in Mars orbit, it must be 4.5 times larger on the surface - and 7.7 to 15.4 times as large to accommodate cloudy days. The sizes of the solar array for the International Space Station (ISS) and a U.S. football field are shown for comparison. (NASA/Marshall)

The idea for making Mars propellant originated in the early 1970s with the late Dr. Gerard O'Neill of Princeton University. It has been promoted vigorously by Dr. Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer who felt that "living off the land" would make the journey cheaper than a mission that attempted to take everything with it.

Refining your own propellants becomes a challenge if you restrict yourself to solar power systems on the surface, Curreri says. To satisfy the mission's needs, astronauts would have to deploy the equivalent of six football fields of solar arrays and then keep them dusted off, and use fuel cells or batteries for power during the night - after the expense of landing them.

Web Links
Homesteading the Planets with Local Materials: (April 28, 1998) NASA/Marshall scientist study making yourself at home on other worlds.
Planetary Rovers Might Roam Better with an Elastic Loop Mobility System. (April 28, 1998). A NASA/Marshall scientist proposes a radical mobility concept.
Designing for a Human Presence in Space
includes information on in situ resource utilization as well as life support systems and other considerations.
Center for Mars Exploration at NASA's Ames Research Center has news, images, and educational resources, including
Manned Mars Reference Mission. This probably isn't exactly how we'll go - but it provides a starting point for future designs, and has en extended discussion of in situ resource utilization.
Public Exploration Server at NASA's Johnson Space Center has more details of the reference mission.
The Mars Society, a private organization, has more images and details of plans for humans to explore the Red Planet.
Solar Power Satellites are getting a new look by NASA.

Curreri thought that the Solar Clipper could be pressed into double duty once it arrives at Mars. The Clipper's solar cells would provide more than enough power to run the Mars outpost. The trick is getting the electricity to the ground.

Red means iron
That can be done by beaming it as microwaves that a special rectifying antenna - the rectenna - turns into direct current electricity. Engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center had considered that possibility but found themselves boxed in at two ends of the radio spectrum. At the long wavelengths that are easily broadcast now, the outpost would need a 20 km-wide field covered with rectennas. A small field is possible, but that requires broadcasting at much shorter wavelengths that engineers do not expect will be practical in the near future.

Curreri and Criswell took a different approach. Mars is rich in iron.

"That's why it's the Red Planet," Curreri explained. "It's covered with rust."

The basic elements of the rectenna are amazingly simple to make. They are just folded metal strips sandwiching an insulator (left) and arranged on a wire mesh reflector (right). Automated equipment could easily be designed to deploy the antenna with little supervision from astronauts. Each of these images links to a larger drawing. (NASA/Marshall)

Iron has little use in aerospace vehicles because it is heavy and corrodes readily. In Mars' gravity field, only 0.38 that of Earth, iron and everything else weighs less. Iron will not corrode readily because Mars' thin atmosphere has virtually no free oxygen.

And, most of a rectenna's mass is in the metal for the dipole antennas.

"What if you were to make that metal on Mars?" Curreri asked. "You could make refining the ore a part of the propellant refining process."

Using water to convert carbon dioxide to methane also yields carbon monoxide, a reducing agent that reacts with rust to produce carbon dioxide and free iron.

Left: A schematic depicts an ore refinery that could be used on Mars. (NASA/Marshall)

"It's a process that's been used since the time of the Romans to refine iron ore," Curreri said.

A chemical reactor could process Mars' air and soil into rocket propellant and into rectenna parts. The iron would be rolled up as strips to make dipoles and wire to form a mesh reflector behind the dipoles. the waste, or slag, would formed into insulator strips going between the dipoles.

A powerful place to be
"If we put the Solar Clipper 17,023 km up, it would be in areosynchronous orbit, meaning its orbital period matches the rotation of Mars, then we would have continuous power," Curreri said. This is is like the geosynchronous orbit used by communications satellites around Earth so an antenna is always pointed at the satellite.

The initial Mars lander would carry enough materials to make a 1.5 km-wide rectenna that would provide 150 kilowatts of electricity to power the refinery. As it cranked out rocket propellant, iron, and slag, automated equipment would expand the rectenna to 20 km in diameter. That would boost the power output to more than 7 megawatts, enough to run a large exploration base. Continued expansion would only require the shipment from Earth of rectifier circuits which are small and lightweight.

Right: An artist's concept for a Mars base - being tested on Earth. The Mars Society plans a demonstration of Mars base technologies, including solar arrays (at the right edge) on Devon Island, Canada, north of the Arctic Circle in 2000. (Courtesy The Mars Society)

Unlike solar arrays that would have to be dusted off periodically, the rectenna would require little maintenance since the dust particles are too small to interact with the radio waves. And the rectenna would work year-round, night and day, with the exception of short eclipses during the spring and autumnal equinoxes.

"Eventually you end up with a power-rich environment on Mars," Curreri said. "Then Mars becomes the second safest place in the solar system for humans. It's an attractive haven instead of aborting a mission and trying to come home."

Curreri says this would be the start of an interplanetary economy.

"We should begin marrying the concepts for the exploration of space with the utilization of space," he said. "The key is to build. Rather than just going to Mars to say we did it, you want to go there and build an infrastructure so people could stay and live."

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Author: Dave Dooling
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