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SpaceWaves: What it takes to build a Martian supply chain (with video)

Mars Exploration Program takes pages from Antarctica's book for supply chain plans

(Photo: FreightWaves)

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Sydney Do, systems engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, hopes to send humans to orbit Mars and come back in the late 2030s. Following a successful orbit and round-trip mission to Mars and back, the next missions would send astronauts to land on the surface of Mars for progressively longer amounts of time. Even though it may be more than a decade before humans set foot on Mars, the logistical planning has already started.

In a SpaceWaves Fireside Chat on Thursday, Do and Andrew Cox, market research analyst at FreightWaves, discussed the logistics of a Martian supply chain and the timeline for future Mars missions. You can find more details about the SpaceWaves Live event here.

In space, ample spare parts, food, fuel and water are fundamental for survival. On Mars, those contingency supplies will be even more vital because of the limited time windows available for transportation. Cox said astronauts currently require an average of 1.5 metric tons each of supplies for every six months they are in space. Do responded, “We’re looking at increasing the self-sustainability of astronauts on the Martian surface” so that staying there for two years wouldn’t require such vast amounts of cargo. 

Once astronauts are involved, not sending enough supplies isn’t really an option because it would take two years for more supplies to make it to Mars. Predicting maintenance needs and developing repurposing plans for materials are important for success in space. Using local resources is one strategy Do and the Mars team hope will work out on Mars because of the millions of miles of travel it takes cargo to get there. Water in the form of subsurface ice is one resource that Do is counting on to help support Mars missions.

Mars Exploration Program learns from logistics in Antarctica

“Mars is a cold, dry desert, and that is exactly what Antarctica is,” Do stated.

Do explained how people and supplies can only be moved in or out of Antarctica for three to four months of the year because of the cold climate and conditions. Because Mars is so far away, Do noted that we can only transport things to or from the planet every two years for a few months while Mars and Earth align in orbit around the sun. Do compared space transportation to Antarctica’s supply chain because they both revolve around multimodal logistics systems to transport cargo and humans from different locations and in different ways.

Finding enough storage space and keeping necessary contingency supplies on hand is a constant challenge in Antarctica and in space. Choosing a landing sight near abundant supplies of subsurface ice on Mars is important because of how valuable water is there. The subsurface ice can be melted and used for drinking water, split into oxygen for breathing, or combined with Martian rock to create rocket fuel, according to Do. The Mars team has also talked about recycling waste for new purposes such as melting down old plastic to 3D-print a new part. Do said they plan to treat Mars like Antarctica, a pristine natural environment. To study it accurately, NASA is creating a plan to treat waste or repurpose waste into something new to avoid contaminating Mars or carrying it on the long journey back to Earth.

What’s next for Mars exploration?

Do works for the Mars Exploration Program, which launched the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover earlier this year. It is projected to land in an ancient river/lake system in the Jezero Crater on Mars in February. The mission of the Perseverance is to collect Martian rock and soil samples and search for signs of ancient life on Mars.

In 2026, NASA hopes to launch the Mars Sample Return mission, which would aim to transport Martian soil and rock samples back to Earth by 2031. This mission would be the first to launch from the surface of Mars back to Earth. Do stressed the importance of this mission: “Not only does it give us those rock samples to study the history of Mars, we can also learn about the properties of Martian soil in the labs, and that affects how you design the systems to keep humans alive.” 

Scientists are still studying and learning about the rock samples from the Moon acquired from the Apollo mission. Do mentioned a Mars Ice Mapper mission that is in the preliminary formulation phase. Its goal would be to refine our understanding of where subsurface ice is located on Mars. Do noted, “Based on the outcome of that mission, we will have sufficient information to be able to narrow down and select where we want to send humans to Mars.” 

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.