Is a Trip to the Moon the Best Route to Mars?

MIT Study Suggests Earth's Moon may be the Best Route to Mars.

Launching humans to Mars may not require a full tank of gas: A new MIT study suggests that a Martian mission may lighten its launch load considerably by refueling on the moon.

The idea is not a new one. ​ Since the 1960's, proposals for mining the moon and converting the resources found there into fuel could be the best route to Mars.

But this may be the first time those ideas have actually been proven mathematically.​  Their findings?

For a piloted mission to Mars, fueling up on the moon could streamline cargo by 68 percent.​

The group at MIT developed a model to determine the best route to Mars, assuming the availability of resources and fuel-generating infrastructure on the moon.  It's a big assumption, but they found the best route to Mars  would involve launching a crew from Earth with just enough fuel to get into orbit.  

A fuel-producing plant on the surface of the moon would then launch tankers of fuel into low-earth orbit, where they be picked up by the Mars-bound crew and used to gas up before ultimately heading to Mars.

Not only would this minimize the mass that would have to be launched from Earth,  it could dramatically lower the overall cost of a mission to Mars.

Mining the Moon may be the best route to Mars: Credit: Pat Rawlings

Credit: Pat Rawlings

Olivier de Weck, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems at MIT, 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.  The idea of taking a detour into the lunar system ... it's very unintuitive. 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.

The results, which are based on the PhD thesis of Takuto Ishimatsu, now a postdoc at MIT, are published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

A faraway strategy 

In the past, Mars exploration plans have two main strategies to get supplies and resources a crew would need on their journey: a "carry-along" approach, where all vehicles and resources travel with the crew at all times (think Apollo);  and a "resupply strategy," where resources are delivered regularly, such as (think International Space Station).

But, as humans explore beyond Earth's orbit, such strategies may not be sustainable,.

Ishimatsu and de Weck and write:

As budgets are constrained and destinations are far away from home, a well-planned logistics strategy becomes imperative.

The MIT team proposes that missions to Mars would benefit from a supply strategy that hinges on "in-situ resource utilization" - the idea that resources such as fuel, and provisions such as water and oxygen, may be produced and collected along the route of space exploration. Materials produced in space would replace those that would otherwise be transported from Earth.

Related: 10 'Must-Have' Strategies for Settling Mars​

For example, water ice - which could potentially be mined and processed into rocket fuel - has been found on both Mars and the moon. And, as de Weck says:

There's a pretty high degree of confidence that these resources are available. Assuming you can extract these resources, what do you do with it? Almost nobody has looked at that question.

Building a network in space

To see whether fuel resources and infrastructure in space would benefit manned missions to Mars, Ishimatsu developed a network flow model to explore various routes to Mars - ranging from a direct carry-along flight to a series of refueling pit stops along the way. The objective of the model was to minimize the mass that would be launched from Earth, even when including the mass of a fuel-producing plant, and spares that would need to be pre-deployed.

Previous proposals for the best route to Mars used mass drivers

Lunar Base Concept

The model assumes a future scenario in which fuel can be processed on, and transported from, the moon to rendezvous points in space. The model also assumes that fuel depots can be located at certain points in space, like Lagrange points. 

Related: The Ultimate Secret to Settling Mars​

Ishimatsu says the research demonstrates the importance of establishing a resource-producing infrastructure in space. He emphasizes that such infrastructure may not be necessary for a first trip to Mars.

But a resource network in space would enable humans to make the journey repeatedly in a sustainable way and therefore be the best route to Mars.

Our ultimate goal is to colonize Mars and to establish a permanent, self-sustainable human presence thereHowever, 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.

de Weck adds:

The optimization suggests that the moon could play a major role in getting us to Mars repeatedly and sustainably, People have hinted at that before, but we think this is the first definitive paper that shows mathematically why that's the right answer.

NASA has previously planned on using Mars resources to reduce propellant needs at Mars. But this study shows the potential advantages of using lunar resources even before we get to Mars.

You can read the full article from MIT here.

What do you think? Would mining the moon for rocket fuel be the best route to Mars? Or would it be a distraction? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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