As the world anxiously awaits for the first human mission to Mars, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a model that suggests refueling on the moon during journey to Mars will minimise the mass and streamline cargo upon launch during journey to Mars
Permanently shadowed craters near the moon’s poles are thought to harbor large quantities of water ice. This ice can be processed into hydrogen and oxygen molecules — the chief components of rocket fuel, which could then be used to fill up the tanks of voyaging spaceships.
Assuming that such technologies are established at the time of a mission to Mars, a group of MIT scientists has found that taking a detour to the moon to refuel would reduce the mass of a mission upon launch by 68 per cent, resulting in significant cost savings.
“This is completely against the established common wisdom of how to go to Mars, which is a straight shot to Mars, carry everything with you,” — study co-author Olivier de Weck, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems at the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), said in a statement.“The idea of taking a detour into the lunar system … it’s very unintuitive,” — de Weck added. “But from an optimal network and big-picture view, this could be very affordable in the long term, because you don’t have to ship everything from Earth.”
Based on researchers calculations, they determined the optimal route to Mars, in order to minimise the mass that would have to be launched from Earth – often a major cost driver in space exploration missions.They found the most mass-efficient path involves launching a crew from Earth with just enough fuel to get into orbit around the Earth. A fuel-producing plant on the surface of the moon would then launch tankers of fuel into space, where they would enter gravitational orbit. The results were published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.
The tankers would eventually be picked up by the Mars-bound crew, which would then head to a nearby fuelling station to stock up before ultimately heading to Mars. Olivier de Weck, says the plan deviates from Nasa’s more direct ‘carry-along’ route.
“This is completely against the established common wisdom of how to go to Mars, which is a straight shot to Mars, carry everything with you,” — Professor de Weck said.
In the past, space exploration programs have adopted two main strategies in supplying mission crews with resources: a carry-along approach, where all vehicles and resources travel with the crew at all times – as on the Apollo missions to the moon – and a ‘resupply strategy,’ in which resources are replenished regularly, such as by spaceflights to the International Space Station.
However, as humans explore beyond Earth’s orbit, such strategies may not be sustainable, as Professors de Weck and Takuto Ishimatsu wrote: “As budgets are constrained and destinations are far away from home, a well-planned logistics strategy becomes imperative.”
The first crewed trip to Mars may not utilize this infrastructure, but such a system could help pave the way for Red Planet settlements, researchers said.
“Our ultimate goal is to colonize Mars and to establish a permanent, self-sustainable human presence there,” — Takuto Ishimatsu, now a postdoc at MIT said in the same statement. “However, equally importantly, I believe that we need to ‘pave a road’ in space so that we can travel between planetary bodies in an affordable way.”
The new study has caught the attention of NASA, which aims to put boots on journey to Mars in the 2030s.
“The paper shows clearly that leveraging water and other valuable in-space resources will lower the cost for human exploration of the solar system,” — William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in the same statement.“NASA had previously planned on using Mars resources to reduce propellant needs at Mars,” — added Gerstenmaier, who was not involved in the paper. “This study, along with others, is showing the potential advantages of using lunar resources as well.”