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In the late 1970s, through the initiative of its director, Bruce Murray, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) studied a range of possible Mars missions, including Mars Sample Return (MSR). Murray and others at the Pasadena, California-based lab were aware that funds for new Mars missions would be hard to come by; the U.S. economy was under strain and NASA, JPL's main customer, was devoting most of its resources to developing the Space Shuttle. In addition, equivocal data from the astrobiology experiments on the twin Vikings, the first successful Mars landers, had damped public enthusiasm for the Red Planet. Would-be Mars explorers reasoned that, if an MSR mission would stand a chance of acceptance, then they would need to find technologies and techniques that could dramatically trim its anticipated cost.

In July-August 1978, two years after the Vikings landed and looked for life on Mars, three engineers at JPL - Robert Ash, a visiting faculty fellow from Old Dominion University in Virginia, and JPL staffers William Dowler and Giulio Varsi - reported on a small study they had conducted of one such cost-saving technology: specifically, making MSR Earth-return rocket propellants from martian resources. Using Earth-return propellants made on Mars would reduce the MSR spacecraft's mass at launch from Earth, permitting it to be launched on a small, relatively cheap launch vehicle.

Earlier researchers had proposed using Mars resources to make rocket propellants, but Ash, Dowler, and Varsi were the first to base their study on data collected on and in orbit of Mars. The Viking landers had confirmed that martian air is made up almost entirely of carbon dioxide, and had found that the planet's rusty red dirt contains an appreciable amount of water. The Viking 2 lander, at rest on the northern plain of Utopia Planitia, had imaged water frost on the surface in winter. In addition, the twin Viking orbiters had imaged water ice clouds high in the atmosphere (image at top of post) and terrain resembling near-polar permafrost regions on Earth.

Ash, Dowler, and Varsi examined three propellant combinations that would exploit resources the Vikings had found on Mars. The first, carbon monoxide fuel and oxygen oxidizer, could be produced by splitting ubiquitous martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. They rejected this combination, however; while easy to produce, it could yield only mediocre performance.

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Published on: December 1, 2012