Credit: Mars Society


Mars Mastermind Robert Zubrin reports that “a giant leap forward” has been reached in a plan for on-the-spot production of rocket propellant on the Red Planet.

From November 14-15, his Colorado-based research and development team at Pioneer Energy, a spinoff company of Pioneer Astronautics, conducted a 24-hour non-stop demonstration of an integrated reverse water-gas shift (RWGS)-Methanol system.

The team with the machine.
Courtesy: Robert Zubrin

Teasing out tons

“We also did a 5-hour demonstration of a system for turning the methanol into dimethyl ether. All tests were witnessed by judges from the X-Prize Carbon capture completion,” Zubrin explains. He adds that if the water produced by the system were electrolyzed, it would produce 72-kilograms of oxygen per day, or 36-metric tons over a 500-day period. The methanol system would produce 52.5-metric tons of methanol. The dimethyl ether (DME) system would produce 28.5-tons of DME.

Oxygen burns with DME at a “stoichiometric” ratio of 2.087. So if the 28.5-tons of DME produced were combined with 59.5-tons of oxygen, a total of 88-tons of useful bipropellant would be available, Zubrin explains. Stoichiometry is a branch of chemistry that deals with the application of the laws of definite proportions and of the conservation of mass and energy to chemical activity.

Alternatively, Zubrin points out, if oxygen is viewed as the limiting propellant, by combining the 36-tons of oxygen with 20-tons of DME (to run slightly fuel rich) 56-tons of useful bipropellant would be available. If the oxygen product were used in a liquid oxygen/RP (rocket grade kerosene) engine burning at 2.8:1, a total of 49-tons of useful bipropellant would be available.

Mars ascent vehicle

In any case, more propellant would be produced by such a system, Zubrin adds than that required for the Mars ascent vehicle in the NASA design reference mission.

“Finally, it may be noted that if the RWGS system were run in parallel in a Sabatier Electrolysis (S/E) system sized to produce 48-kilograms of methane (CH4) and 96-kilograms of oxygen (O2) per day, a total of 24-tons of methane and 84-tons of oxygen would be produced, which is sufficient to fly the Mars Direct mission,” Zubrin notes. In-situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) “has entered a new world,” he concludes.

Credit: NASA



NASA is also investing in ISRU, testing the concept on the Mars 2020 rover now being built and tested. Among its experiments, The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will demonstrate a way that future explorers might produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing.

Zubrin told Inside Outer Space that MOXIE is a useful small step in testing ISRU on Mars. “But MOXIE will produce oxygen at a rate of 20 grams per hour. Our system can do 3 kilograms per hour, or 150 times the MOXIE rate. MOXIE is built on the scale of propellant manufacture for a robotic Mars sample return mission. Ours is full scale to make the ascent propellant for a human Mars expedition.”

Credit: Touchstone

Maximum results, minimum investment

Zubrin’s visionary Mars Direct plan was highlighted in the seminal book: The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, first published in 1996, and revised and updated in 2011. Zubrin is also President of the Mars Society.

Mars Direct is a sustained humans-to-Mars plan blueprinted by Zubrin that advocates a minimalist, live-off-the-land approach to exploring the Red Planet, allowing for maximum results with minimum investment. Using existing launch technology and making use of the Martian atmosphere to generate rocket fuel, extracting water from the Martian soil and eventually using the abundant mineral resources of the Red Planet for construction purposes, the plan drastically lowers the amount of material which must be launched from Earth to Mars, thus sidestepping the primary stumbling block to space exploration and rapidly accelerating the timetable for human exploration of the solar system.

For more information on Mars Direct, go to:


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