Currently it takes over 25,000 tons of rocket hardware and propellant to land 50 tons of anything on the planet Mars using the technology we have today. For NASA’s first crew mission to mars, it is critical to learn how to harvest the planet’s local resources to live off the land sustainably. 

Last month, NASA announced that an MIT team had come first in the annual Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts- Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition for their in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) design that produces propellant on Mars from local resources instead of bringing it from Earth. 

Their project is called “Bipropellant All-in-one In-situ Resource Utilization Truck and Mobile Autonomous Reactor Generating Electricity” (BART & MARGE). MIT has explained that BART and MARGE will travel around Mars in tandem; BART handles all aspects of production, storage, and distribution of propellant, while MARGE provides power for the operations.  

The team had to present their concept to a panel of NASA experts and aerospace industry leaders at the RASC-AL Forum in June. They were awarded first place and they were also recognised as “Best in Theme”. 

“Previous ISRU concepts utilized several different small rovers and a fixed central plant, but MIT’s BART and MARGE concept is composed of essentially just two types of fully mobile, integrated large trucks with no central plant,” says Chloé Gentgen, PhD candidate in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) who served as team lead for the project. 

“The absence of a central plant enables easy scalability of the architecture, and being fully mobile and integrated, our system has the flexibility to produce propellant wherever the best ice reserves can be found and then deliver it wherever it is needed.” 

The MIT team addressed the RASC-AL theme “Mars Water-based ISRU Architecture”, which required delivering the target 50 tons of propellant at the end of each year and the ability to operate for at least five years without human maintenance 

A few other restrictions were placed, chief among them that teams could rely on one or more landings of 45 tons of mass and 300 cubic meters of volume on Mars, leaving it to university teams to propose an architecture, budget, and a flight schedule to support their mission. 

More than 50 teams responded to the initial call for RASC-AL entries, where participants submitted a proposal and a two-minute video. While this year marks the first time an MIT team took the top spot overall; MIT is no stranger to the RASC-AL competition.