Pioneer Astronautics Selected for NASA Small Business Award

Bob Zubrin’s Pioneer Astronautics has been selected for a NASA small business award to begin development of a system to extract soil from martian soil.

“The Advanced Mars Water Acquisition System (AMWAS) recovers and purifies water from Mars soils for oxygen and fuel production, life support, food production, and radiation shielding in support of human exploration missions,” the proposal states. “The AMWAS removes water from Mars soils using hot, recirculating carbon dioxide gas to provide rapid heat transfer. The AMWAS evaporates water from ice and salt hydrates, leaving dissolved contaminants in the soil residue.”

The proposal was selected for a NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I award. The contract is worth a maximum of $125,000 over six months.

A summary of the proposal follows.

Proposal Title: Advanced Mars Water Acquisition System
Subtopic Title: Mars Soil Acquisition and Processing for In Situ Water

Small Business Concern
Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mark Berggren
Lakewood, CO

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The Advanced Mars Water Acquisition System (AMWAS) recovers and purifies water from Mars soils for oxygen and fuel production, life support, food production, and radiation shielding in support of human exploration missions. The AMWAS removes water from Mars soils using hot, recirculating carbon dioxide gas to provide rapid heat transfer. The AMWAS evaporates water from ice and salt hydrates, leaving dissolved contaminants in the soil residue. The water distilled from the extraction vessel is condensed, treated with activated carbon to remove residual volatiles and organic material, filtered to remove suspended solids, and subjected to deionization in preparation for proton exchange membrane electrolysis.

Recuperative heat exchange is employed to minimize heat losses from recirculating carbon dioxide gas. Cold temperatures of the Mars atmosphere are used to facilitate condensation and separation of water from recycled carbon dioxide gas. A vacuum jacket is used to minimize heat losses from the extraction vessel. Much of the net heat input to the AMWAS can be supplied by solar concentrators or waste heat from radioisotope thermoelectric generators. The AMWAS vessel is equipped with a single, stationary seal that facilitates materials handling automation and minimizes potential leakage over the nominal operating period of up to 480 days.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The primary application of AMWAS is for production of clean water from Mars soils for electrolysis, fuel and oxygen production, food production, and radiation shielding. The AMWAS can provide a reliable, low-cost, low-mass technology to produce water, hydrogen, and liquid oxygen on the surface of Mars out of indigenous materials at low power. The ability to extract water from Mars could also serve to supply the crew of Mars missions with water, which is the second most massive logistic component of a Mars mission. Smaller versions of the AMWAS could be used to help make the return propellant for a Mars sample return mission on the Martian surface, thereby making such a mission both cheaper to launch and much easier to land.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The AMWAS could be implemented in arid terrestrial climates for recovery of water from soils. Even in the driest regions of Earth, the regolith is several times wetter than on Mars, and the AMWAS can operate efficiently under those conditions. Regions that are too far from the coastline to economically pipe water may be potential markets. Units sized for vehicles traveling in desert regions could reduce logistical requirements for the military and civilians operating in remote areas, since it is very lightweight, cheap, and portable. By enabling agriculture in arid areas the AMWAS could also support the production of renewable energy in the form of biofuels.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Processing Methods
  • Prototyping
  • Resource Extraction

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  • ThomasLMatula

    I hate to be a nitpicker, but technically soil is a combination of organic material with minerals that is capable of serving as a medium to produce plants.

    https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/soils/edu/?cid=nrcs142p2_054280

    “Soil is a natural body comprised of solids (minerals and organic matter), liquid, and gases that occurs on the land surface, occupies space, and is characterized by one or both of the following: horizons, or layers, that are distinguishable from the initial material as a result of additions, losses, transfers, and transformations of energy and matter or the ability to support rooted plants in a natural environment.”

    Unless life has been found on Mars, Mars is covered with regolith not soil.

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/regolith

    “unconsolidated residual or transported material that overlies the solid rock on the earth, moon, or a planet”

    So it should be Mars regolith, not Mars soil. One part of good science is the proper use of terminology.

    That said, it is good someone is looking at how to mix Mars regolith with organic materials to make soil.

  • JamesG

    Maybe they are using optimistic word choice? Most NASA pressers seem to almost assume there was/is Martian life.

  • Paul451

    Since regolith covers everything smaller than consolidated bedrock, it’s common in planetology to use “soil” to refer generically to small grain regolith. It’s accepted terminology.