A Biocatalytic Reactor for Detoxifying Water on Mars!

Artist's impression of water under the Martian surface. Credit: ESA/Medialab

Mars is the next frontier of human space exploration, with NASA, China, and SpaceX all planning to send crewed missions there in the coming decades. In each case, the plans consist of establishing habitats on the surface that will enable return missions, cutting-edge research, and maybe even permanent settlements someday. While the idea of putting boots on Martian soil is exciting, a slew of challenges need to be addressed well in advance. Not the least of which is the need to locate sources of water, which consist largely of subsurface deposits of water ice.

Herein lies another major challenge: Martian ice deposits are contaminated by toxic perchlorates, potent oxidizers that cause equipment corrosion and are hazardous to human health (even at low concentrations). To this end, crewed missions must bring special equipment to remove perchlorates from water on Mars if they intend to use it for drinking, irrigation, and manufacturing propellant. This is the purpose of Detoxifying Mars, a proposed concept selected by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for Phase I development.

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Instead of Building Structures on Mars, we Could Grow Them With the Help of Bacteria

ISRU system concept for autonomous construction on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA and the China National Space Agency (CNSA) plan to mount the first crewed missions to Mars in the next decade. These will commence with a crew launching in 2033, with follow-up missions launching every 26 months to coincide with Mars and Earth being at the closest point in their orbits. These missions will culminate with the creation of outposts that future astronauts will use, possibly leading to permanent habitats. In recent decades, NASA has conducted design studies and competitions (like the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge) to investigate possible designs and construction methods.

For instance, in the Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0, NASA describes a “commuter” architecture based on a “centrally located, monolithic habitat” of lightweight inflatable habitats. However, a new proposal envisions the creation of a base using organisms that extract metals from sand and rock (a process known as biomineralization). Rather than hauling construction materials or prefabricated modules aboard a spaceship, astronauts bound for Mars could bring synthetic bacteria cultures that would allow them to grow their habitats from the Red Planet itself.

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Using Bacteria to Build a Base on Mars

Credit: TU Delft

When it comes to plans for future missions to space, one of the most important aspects will be the use of local resources and autonomous robots. This process is known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), which reduces the amount of equipment and resources that need to be sent ahead or brought along by a mission crew. Meanwhile, autonomous robots can be sent ahead of a crew and have everything prepared for them in advance.

But what about bacteria that can draw iron from extraterrestrial soil, which would then be used to 3D print metal components for a base? That is the idea that is being proposed by PhD candidate Benjamin Lehner of the Delft University of Technology. On Friday (Nov. 22nd), he defended his thesis, which calls for the deployment of an uncrewed mission to Mars that will convert regolith into useable metal using a bacteria-filled bioreactor.

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