When NASA launches manned missions to space they have to bring just about everything along with them. You can’t reach out into space for resources when you’re cruising in orbit aboard the International Space Station, and the Apollo missions to the Moon didn’t attempt to turn anything on the lunar surface into anything useful for the trip. When NASA sends humans to Mars, that’s going to have to change.
Missions to Mars will need to be as lean as possible, meaning that using any available resources on the Red Planet will be of utmost importance. With that in mind, NASA just announced the CO2 Conversion Challenge, which asks teams of scientists and inventors to come up with a way to turn CO2 into molecules that can be used to produce all manner of things. And there’s big prize money on the line.
To start, NASA is asking teams to focus on converting CO2 to Glucose, but the language of the challenge suggests you can approach that goal from any angle you wish:
Help us discover ways to develop novel synthesis technologies that use carbon dioxide (CO2) as the sole carbon source to generate molecules that can be used to manufacture a variety of products, including “substrates” for use in microbial bioreactors.
Because CO2 is readily abundant within the Martian atmosphere, such technologies will translate into in-situ manufacturing of products to enable humans to live and thrive on the planet, and also be implemented on Earth by using both waste and atmospheric CO2 as a resource.
Teams or individuals who want to participate will need to register by January 24, 2019, and then officially apply by February 28. Experts will review each plan and award up to $250,000 spread across up to five individuals or teams.
The next phase of the competition is still a bit light on details. NASA says it’ll announce the rules and criteria once Phase 1 is complete, but the administration has revealed that it’s ready to award up to $750,000 to the individual, team, or teams that can demonstrate that their system(s) work as intended and could be used by astronauts on Mars.
“Future planetary habitats on Mars will require a high degree of self-sufficiency,” NASA explains. “This requires a concerted effort to both effectively recycle supplies brought from Earth and use local resources such as CO2, water and regolith to manufacture mission-relevant products. Human life support and habitation systems will treat wastewater to make drinking water, recover oxygen from CO2, convert solid wastes to useable products, grow food, and specially design equipment and packaging to allow reuse in alternate forms.”
If you think you’re up to the task of engineering a system that could keep Mars astronauts alive, you only have a few months to apply. Get to it!