Tech UPTechnologyThe key to colonizing Mars without humans

The key to colonizing Mars without humans

An iron-producing bacterium could be the key to the desired colonization of the red planet without the need to send space missions with humans, at least in the first few years. This ambitious plan has been developed by Benjamin Lehner , PhD student at Delft University of Technology (Netherlands). With this project, it would only be necessary to send a rover, a bioreactor and a 3D printer to start colonizing Mars.

 

Why is this idea so interesting?

 

When it comes to planning future missions to space, one of the most important aspects is the use of local resources and autonomous robots . This process is known as in situ resource utilization (ISRU, for its acronym in English), which reduces the amount of equipment and resources to be sent or brought by a crew of mission. Meanwhile, autonomous robots can be dispatched long before the crew and have everything ready for when they land.

In this way, bacteria can extract iron from alien soil, which would then be used to 3D print metal components that would serve to build a Martian base. In his thesis, Lehner proposes the deployment of an unmanned mission to Mars that will convert the regolith into usable metal through a bioreactor full of bacteria, which would allow the creation of Martian habitats for missions without the need for a crew to send supplies. in advance.

 

How exactly would it be done?

A rover, basically a robotic shovel, will take the soil into a bacteria-filled bioreactor, which will consume the iron-rich but unusable soil and digest it into a more useful oxide. After this, a 3D printer can make tools and anything that future settlers might need.

The downside

Seeding Mars with bacteria would have a drawback: It would completely ruin the attempts of astrobiologists to find traces of extraterrestrial life on the planet. To avoid contamination between planets, Lehner designed a closed-loop system – a sealed chamber – to collect Martian soil, extract minerals, and turn them into useful materials such as bolts, nuts, iron plates, etc. Without polluting the soil of Mars.

Inside the bioreactor, the bacteria would feed on microalgae , which rely on sunlight and CO2 from the Martian atmosphere to create nutrients and oxygen. They also produce residual organic waste, which the first astronauts on Mars will be able to extract and use as compost.

Another point to take into account would be the time. Lehner and his team calculated that a 1,400-liter reactor can produce up to 350 kg of material in one year . Although it is a good idea, it is a slow process, as the work suggests that it would take years for the bacteria to produce enough iron to be useful, so we could not take it as a quick response plan to the current challenges of space colonization.

And this assuming that the proposed terraforming system is really feasible.

International Space Station


A very similar idea is currently being investigated aboard the ISS, a bioreactor that relies on algae to provide life support and a constant supply of nutrients. When missions to the Moon and Mars become frequent, it will be common to see robots equipped with 3D printers.

Referencia : ‘To new frontiers, microbiology for nanotechnology and space exploration’ doi.org/10.4233/uuid:acd7102b- … b5-972e-fe3a2ad9c52e

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