Mars Mission: Methane-based fuel could be created on Red Planet to get astronauts home

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Getting to Mars is only a small part of the battle for the likes of SpaceX and NASA. Another major problem space agencies face is how to return astronauts back to Earth. To launch just one kilogram of cargo into space, it costs SpaceX a staggering $2,700 – by far the cheapest around.

As a result, cargo space and weight is precious and where costs can be cut, they will be.

Taking enough fuel to Mars so that there is enough for the return journey could feasibly cost billions of dollars extra, so scientists are looking at ways to create fuel on the Red Planet.

A team from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) may now have found a solution to the conundrum.

They believe that a methane-based rocket fuel could theoretically be created on the surface of Mars.

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The scientists discovered that single-atom zinc can speed up the current two-step process – and it would work using only a small and portable device.

The machine would work by using a solar-powered infrastructure to generate electricity to create the electrolysis of carbon dioxide.

When the electrolysis of carbon dioxide is mixed with water – which can be found in the ice caps of Mars – it produces methane.

It is a process known as Sabatier which is already used on the International Space Station (ISS) to create oxygen from water.

However, to do this on the ISS, a two-stage process is needed which requires large machinery – something which could not be taken to Mars.

UCI assistant professor in physics & astronomy, Houlin Xin, and his team have come up with a device which uses zinc to act as a synthetic enzyme, which catalyses the carbon dioxide and reduces the process.

The small machine would take up much less space on any future rockets to Mars and will help to create the methane-based fuel.

Prof Xin said: “The zinc is fundamentally a great catalyst.

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“It has time, selectivity and portability – a big plus for space travel.

“The process we developed bypasses the water-to-hydrogen process, and instead efficiently converts CO2 into methane with high selectivity.”

Currently, rockets use liquid hydrogen to power lift-off.

The fuel itself is cheap and effective but has its drawbacks in how much it weighs.

Methane, a gas, would be super-light and naturally generated.

SpaceX and Elon Musk are currently working on the Raptor, which would use methane as the source of its fuel.

However, Prof Xin said the device is currently only a “proof of concept”, but initial results in the laboratory indicate success.

He said: “Lots of engineering and research is needed before this can be fully implemented. But the results are very promising.”

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