CSU-Pueblo students witness August 6 Curiosity landing at Mars Society Convention

PUEBLO –Two chemistry and engineering students accompanied by Engineering Professor Dr. Husein Sarper from Colorado State University-Pueblo viewed the August 6 Mars landing of the Curiosity along with other scientists attending the 15th annual Mars Society Convention in Pasadena, Calif. Later that day, the students shared a presentation about how to  create oxygen and fuel from the red planets’ available resources.

Alex Klein, a junior engineering (mechatronics) major from Elizabeth, and Mike Bender, senior chemistry and industrial engineering major from Brighton, outlined how available Martian water and solar cells could be used to create oxygen for life using a Sabatier reactor and solar-powered electrolysis tank, according to CSU-Pueblo Professor of Engineering Dr. Huseyin Sarper. The students also explained how hydrogen reacts with available carbon dioxide to produce methane gas that could be used as rocket fuel for returning to Earth as well as fuel needed for driving rovers over Mars’ rocky terrain.

Scientists, policymakers and space program experts attend the annual event to discuss Mars exploration and to promote future Mars missions. More than 200 scientists and NASA engineers attended the convention that coincided with the August 6 Mars Science Landing (MSL) project.

Klein said he was a bit intimidated to present information on the Sabatier reactor to such a highly educated professional group, but returned from the conference more focused on a career in space technology.

“I feel I know my subject matter pretty well, but was nervous giving my presentation to scientists and engineers some with doctorate degrees,” Klein said. “This whole experience will be one heck of bullet on my resume.”

Carrying return fuel to Mars could cost taxpayers $300 billion over a 10-year period, Sarper said. Therefore, scientists have a choice of learning how to use available resources on Mars to produce return fuel or scrapping the idea of ever sending a manned mission there since a one-way trip is not an option for NASA. Sarper said the Sabatier reactor would draw carbon dioxide from the red planets’ atmosphere, and hydrogen astronauts bring on the mission all could be used to create methane and water.

“A combination Sabatier reactor and solar-powered electrolysis apparatus produces liquid methane, and the apparatus breaks down water into hydrogen and oxygen gases,” Klein said.

Thus, it is not necessary even to bring hydrogen after the first few trips. Hydrogen and CO2 is placed into the Sabatier and pushed over a catalyst which is heated to 390 degrees Celsius, which produces methane gas and water in a gaseous state. Klein said the water then is separated from the methane and both of them are turned into liquid.

Paul Wallace, Engineering Department laboratory coordinator, built the Sabatier and reactor and electrolysis tank in the campus’ machine shop with the assistance of students. Bender, Klein, undergraduate student I.P. Aragona, and graduate students Yudhisthir Paudel and F. Paul Rael. conducted tests with Wallace in the University’s engineering and chemistry labs under the supervision of Assistant Chemistry Professor Dr. David Dillon.

Rael credits the MSL for his fascination with space exploration. Rael co-presented with Bender at last year’s Mars Society convention in Dallas. He is convinced that Mars contains water, and he aspires to be a member of the team that finds this element.

“I have seen photos of the planet’s northern hemisphere and read evidence that more than hint that liquid water could exist on Mars,” said Rael, who is pursuing a Master of Science in Industrial Engineering from CSU-Pueblo. “However, it’s up to us to find it and make it work.”