Mars In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge Overview

Mars In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge

If humanity is ever going to engage in sustainable human exploration of the solar system, we will have to learn how to use the indigenous resources. If we don’t, all supplies must come from Earth at enormous cost and complexity. This makes any large scale and long term exploration and/or settlement plans unrealistic. The nearby planet which offers the most intriguing possibilities of utilizing in situ resources is Mars. Although this type of technology development was in the NASA budget several years ago, it fell victim to budget cuts. This is an essential technology that must be developed. Thankfully, there is no reason why ISRU technology cannot be further advanced in the private sector. With the new private sector oriented space plan recently proposed by the Obama Administration, the timing is perfect for this type of prize.

On site use of resources, or In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) when possible is vital, otherwise all supplies must be brought with us. And with the present launching technology saving on launch mass is imperative and this makes ‘on site use of resources’ (ISRU) a preferred method of surface operations. ISRU includes making fuel from the atmosphere on Mars, making water and oxygen from the water ice on Mars and in general using the natural recourses of Mars whenever we can.

ISRU reactors which can create methane, a possible rocket fuel component, from carbon dioxide like that found in the Martian atmosphere have existed for over a century. Although a number of individuals demonstrated their possible use for Mars exploration, we want to push this concept beyond the already existing machines. With our ISRU challenge we have the objective to further reduce the mass of those  existing ISRU machines and to improve their efficiency. Our immediate goal is to fly a small ISRU machine on the Sample Return Mission to produce the fuel for the return flight to Earth on Mars. The ISRU Challenge encourages competition amongst universities to develop improved, or new, existing proposed methods for using the resources already present on Mars

Explore Mars is looking for sponsors to support a Mars ISRU Prize. With this prize, we will challenge teams to demonstrate that not only is ISRU possible, but it is quite demonstrable here on Earth. The objective of the prize is to do an end-to-end demonstration of ISRU providing the propellant for a rocket engine capable of performing a Mars ascent mission. In addition to advancing this important technology, this program is also intended to provide a new venue for university students to engage in real space exploration development projects.

Phase 1: Prize Concept: Teams must build a reactor that will create fuel in sufficient quantity to fuel a small rocket or rocket engine. Teams will need to draw simulated Mars atmosphere specifically designed to simulate Martian atmospheric composition, pressure, and dust concentration. Once the fuel is produced, the teams will be required to remotely pump the fuel into a liquid fuel rocket or rocket engine.

Sample Return Requirements: All teams will need to design their reactors to meet specifications consistent with a potential robotic sample return mission that NASA and ESA hope to launch. As such, teams will be required to design their reactors to be small, lightweight and to consume as little power as possible.

Teams will be supplied with an energy supply, access to simulated Mars atmosphere, a supply of hydrogen, a rocket motor (or actual rocket), and any specification required for utilizing the provided equipment/supplies. Everything else must be provided by each individual team.

Prize: The team to most successfully achieve the requirements in one (1) year of the official start of this contest will receive a $50,000 prize. At the end of one year, each team will demonstrate their reactors at the ISRU Challenge finals (location to be announced soon) and will be judged on the amount and quality of the fuel; the size and functionality of the reactor; and how little energy the reactor consumes. There will probably be several secondary prizes as well, including a prize for the best “University” effort.

University Partnerships: Although we would like to open this prize to any interested US based team, all non-university teams will be required to partner with university students and/or a university department. By requiring this, we can help assure that we are not only promoting innovations, but helping to train the next generation of innovators.


1. It will shed additional light on a vital technology needed for any long-term space exploration. Although ISRU has been discussed for many years, it has been neglected in the federal budget and in overall NASA planning.

2. The ISRU Challenge will help harness the entrepreneurial spirit. This approach can not only have the great benefit of much lower costs than in a traditional government program, but will also benefit from potentially “non-traditional” teams who may be able to approach this technology differently than may have been tried with more traditional methods.

3. ISRU will provide an exciting venue for university students to become involved in a project that could make a real contribution to space exploration.

4. Explore Mars also intends use this program to promote science and engineering education in as many ways as possible. By doing so, the ISRU Challenge will not only benefit the participating teams, but also many others. We welcome any input on how this program can inspire interest in science, engineering, and space exploration.

Phase II: Although details of Phase II have not been completed, once Phase I of the ISRU Challenge is completed, Explore Mars will launch a more ambitious program that will require that teams to build flight ready hardware.

Perhaps also a call for university sponsors that lists these reasons. We also want to be clear that we are also looking for corporate sponsors.

What Benefits will the ISRU Challenge bring to your university?

1. Founding Sponsor Status: Regardless of whether several additional universities come on as sponsors, your university will remain as a lead academic sponsor.

2. In Situ Resource Utilization is likely to be a highly competitive field during the upcoming decades. Your university can gain an edge of this area of research, which could translate into attracting faculty, students, and potential government and non-government support. Presently, no university would be considered an unquestionable leader in this type of technology.

3. Your university logo will be prominently displayed in all official releases, advertising, etc. The visibility that will be created by this program may motivate many of the brightest minds to select the your university over other universities and programs – particularly if they see that your institution is working on engineering programs that will have a real impact of future human space exploration.

4. As NASA gears up to invest in private sector solutions to engineering challenges, the ISRU Challenge will give your university a perfect opportunity to take a lead in one of these efforts.

5. Taking a lead in the ISRU Challenge could provide a pathway for many similar (and perhaps greater) opportunities in the future. Once an institution is associated with this type of forward thinking innovation program, many avenues can develop that would not have appeared otherwise.

6. As various press outlets cover the ISRU Challenge, we will make sure that your participation is highlighted and we will refer reporters to your university for interviews, quotes, etc.

7. As this program develops, Explore Mars can help to arrange space luminary visits to your university. These types of visits can have a significant impact on recruitment, particularly if it is clear that these visits are a result of the fact that your university has become a player in space exploration engineering.

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