Colorado State University – Pueblo students and faculty wow Mars Convention attendees
PUEBLO – Students and faculty from the Departments of Engineering and Chemistry at Colorado State University-Pueblo wowed attendees at the 14th Mars Society Convention in Dallas earlier this month with what they believe may be the only functioning, educational table top Sabatier reactor in the world. The reactor illustrates the fuel creation process that will be required in order for future Mars crews to return from missions.
Because any future crewed Mars mission will not depart Earth with its return fuel onboard due to the prohibitive cost of carrying the return fuel, future trips from Mars will need to fuel up to return to Earth. This means that the alternatives are either producing return fuel in-situ (or using available resources on Mars), making a one-way trip, or not going at all. According to Engineering Professor Hǘseyin Sarper, return fuel production on Mars will always be needed even if the initial trips are one-way.
While return fuel production via the Sabatier reactor was old news to the 250 scholars attending the convention, the CSU-Pueblo presenters introduced the table top reactor as a major NASA Space Grant student project. Michael Bender, junior chemistry and industrial engineering major from Westminster, and industrial and systems engineering graduate student Paul Rael of Pueblo led the session at the annual conference.
The Sabatier reactor uses available carbon dioxide in Martian atmosphere and hydrogen (initially brought to Mars) to create two products, methane and water. Methane gas can be used as fuel in the combustion process. Due to fire regulations in the hotel, the presenters were unable to create as much visual excitement by lighting up the reactor, but still entertained a large crowd with PowerPoint photographs of CH4 burning.
“People kept coming back, looking at it, and asking questions long after the session was over,” said Sarper. “They gave us additional ideas, such as how to do this in a near vacuum.”
Sarper noted that a previous attempt to build the reactor in 2002 at CSU-Pueblo was unsuccessful, but visits to the lab of Dr. Robert Zubrin, president of the Pioneer Astronautics Corporation in Lakewood, inspired Sarper to try again as a NASA Space Grant project to educate students and faculty, who visited Zubrin’s lab three times in 2009-2010 for technical advisement.
Anthony C. Muscatello, Ph.D. with the NASA Surface Systems Office at Kennedy Space Center, was among the admirers of the student project, emailing after the conference that he was “greatly impressed by your table top Sabatier reactor system presentation at the Mars Society Convention. I mentioned your work this morning on a telecom with colleagues at JSC about our Mars ISRU demonstration project and they wanted to know your methane production rate.”