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Can Outer Space Research Lead us to Fuel on Earth?

they say extra-terrestrial trips cost a ton of money, but we learn things from these journeys, and learning how to efficiently get fuel from Mars might lead to a solution to help planet Earth...

I was watching the Science channel recently, and they were talking about trying to come up with a feasible plan for a manned trip to Mars. Because it takes a lot of fuel to get people there and back, people have been coming up with a solution for creating fuel on Mars. If we sent a small, unmanned ship to Mars first with equipment that could start using resources abundant on Mars to create fuel for a manned trip back home.
Now, that sounds like a cool idea, creating gas. I mean, if we are needing fuel for heating our homes and running out SUVs, trying to “create” fuel seems like a great idea. But I’m sure that the composition of the atmosphere or ground on Mars, that makes our red neighbor a more likely place for creating fuel like this.
I watched this show, and I looked around on line for more information about this, and, well, there is a lot of science jargon in these plans, so I’m going to give you some resources that might explain it. When I heard this mentioned on the Science Channel, I really wanted to learn more – not necessarily for a manned trip to Mars (though the science geek and the astronomy buff in me thinks that would be so cool), but because of the possibility of creating fuel for Earth (we do get a got of new scientific data based on NASA and outer space research and journeys). If President Bush has destroyed our chances for inexpensive gasoline for our cars or oil to heat our homes, maybe this is a way to kill many birds with this one solution (and to not kill any birds due to climate change).

Jim Haldenwang wrote in “The Human Exploration of Mars” (released 10/31/05 and revised 01/05/06, which can be researched at http://members.cox.net/jhaldenwang/mars.htm) explained that Aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin proposed the feasibility of a manned trip to Mars based on producing fuel for the manned return trip from the Red Planet. If a small ship flies separately in advance to the manned flight, carrying hydrogen and a small nuclear reactor, the machinery could utilize the 95% carbon monoxide atmosphere. According to the article, “The Sabatier reaction can be used to produce methane and water from hydrogen and Martian carbon dioxide.” One of the additional products of these reactions is the production of oxygen.
Steven T. Green and Danny M. Deffenbaugh agreed in their article “Fueling a Trip from Mars” (http://www.swri.org/3pubs/ttoday/spring99/mars.htm), by noting that “astronauts can process the carbon dioxide with hydrogen brought from Earth to produce essential rocket fuel ingredients.”
You think this is just one source? I looked further and found other sources, including an article called “Mars Atmospheric Resources” (http://ares.jsc.nasa.gov/HumanExplore/Exploration/EXLibrary/docs/ISRU/08Atmos.htm), by stating that “the martian atmosphere, consisting mostly of carbon dioxide, can be processed to release oxygen for life support or propellant use. Carbon monoxide, which could be a moderate performance rocket fuel, is the coproduct.”
And in “A Road Map To Mars” by Robert Ash (http://www.odu.edu/ao/instadv/quest/roadmaptomars.html), he also reiterates that “before departure of the first manned Martian expedition, a small chemical processor could be built and sent to Mars, along with solar- or nuclear-power generating equipment, to slowly convert on-planet materials (such as water and carbon dioxide) into oxygen and fuel for surface exploration.”
Okay, so a bunch of people can write articles (I am writing an article, someone somewhere could be using my writings as evidence to prove a point), I suppose I should try to find something that might sound a little more credible (if the scientists who have devised these plans are altogether unscientific). So I even searched for academic teachings to look for any information on this. And lo and behold, I hit jackpot. Dennis Ward taught a class (and his paperwork is copyrighted from 2000) (Mr. Ward is staff at the National Center for Atmospheric Research & the UCAR Office of Programs, which is operated by the University corporation for Atmospheric Research) wrote about Fueling Interplanetary Travel. In “Extraterrestrial Resource Utilization” (http://eo.ucar.edu/staff/dward/sao/fit/etru.htm), and he broke down the concept with a lot more detail:

“Mars has soil that could be processed to produce oxygen, as well as water (in the polar ice caps or in subsurface permafrost) that could be electrolyzed to produce oxygen and hydrogen propellants. However, Mars is unique in possessing an atmosphere of carbon dioxide (CO2) that represents a potential extraterrestrial resource.
If we bring a supply of hydrogen with us, we can set up a Sabatier / Water Electrolysis process to produce oxygen and methane. The Sabatier process uses hydrogen gas as a catalyst to produce methane and water from the carbon dioxide found in the Martian atmosphere:

CO2 + 4H/sub>2 —> CH4 + 2H2O

Some of the water is then electrolyzed to produce hydrogen and oxygen:

2H2O + electricity —> 2H2 + O2

This results in supplies of methane, water, hydrogen, and oxygen. The methane and oxygen could be used to power vehicles needed to explore the Martian surface, while hydrogen and oxygen could be used to refuel the spacecraft for the return trip.”

And I could start talking about the human applications of this idea now, but before we do I should talk about the validity of this plan for interplanetary travel to begin with... The article “The Next Frontier” from The Age (http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/02/26/1014471637279.html). This article brings up Zubrin, but NASA doesn’t immediately agree with Zubrin’s assessment. Gary Martin, director of the Advanced Systems Office at NASA’s Office of Spaceflight, talked to the people at the Age, and said that “In fact, if you gave us all the money in the world right now you couldn’t do it, you couldn’t keep people alive.” NASA is considering using the Moon as a launch point to get to Mars, and they are even considering a plasma “bubble” around the ship that would protect the manned contents of a ship form deep-space radiation.
But okay, this actually was not my point. My point is that people are talking about combining water (which we have, and is available in the Martian polar ice caps) and Carbon Dioxide (which I’m afraid we have too much of, hurting our chances of warming the earth, I hear), to make fuel. I don’t know, we talk about our dependence on Middle-Eastern countries for our dependence on oil for heating our homes and driving our SUVs (how economical of us), when people are looking to outer space for a potential solution to our problems in planet Earth.
People joke about how NASA and outer space exploration actually helps us on Earth, and I don’t know if that is usually enough of an argument for the vast amounts of money we spend on researching outer space (many would say it’s not), but what the Hell. If we are finding ways to create fuel out of the things that (A) we have a ton of on this planet (like water, in our oceans), or things that (B) we worry that we may be hurting our environment and causing global warming (you know, that Carbon Dioxide and Methane in our upper atmosphere). Granted, Al Gore started his movie An Inconvenient Truth by saying that humans account for probably less than 5% of the greenhouse gases on Earth, but if there really is a problem with the amount of Carbon Dioxide on this planet, maybe part of the problem on this planet could be a part of our heating and fuel solution.




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Chicago poet Janet Kuypers
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