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Science & Tech

Mars: In-Situ Resource Utilization

Chris Hadfield

Lesson time 7:12 min

If we can safely get to Mars, in-situ resource utilization could help us sustain life there. Chris breaks down the vital Sabatier process for creating hydrogen, oxygen, and methane on Mars.

Chris Hadfield
Teaches Space Exploration
The former commander of the International Space Station teaches you the science of space exploration and what the future holds.


All the gear that we're going to need doesn't necessarily need to travel in the same ship that we're in. A logical way to do it, and one that we're heading towards, is to send a cargo ship to Mars, automated, sort of like one of the rovers-- Spirit or Opportunity or Curiosity that's on the surface-- and have it do it all automated and land. Choose a place on Mars that's interesting to go, and then have that land and start building a small robotic base. And if you build it right, that base can actually start generating oxygen, generating the supplies that we need, processing the thin Martian atmosphere into the gases that we're going to need when we get there as human beings, taking out the oxygen, and the hydrogen, maybe using the water of the surface and processing that so that we can have water to drink and air to breathe. If you already had a little bubble, a supply of air and water, and a place that was generating power-- if we were using the resources that exist on Mars to create the environment that will keep us alive, every single thing that we can generate from the resources on Mars-- that's one less thing we have to put on our rocket and pay the big penalty of dragging it all the way from Earth. And so we work really hard on trying to develop how we're going to do that that we even have an acronym for it-- ISRU, In Situ Resource Utilization. How are we going to use the resources that are there on Mars. And Mars has an atmosphere. And Mars has ice, almost an unlimited supply, oceans of ice that are frozen in the permafrost in the tundra of Mars. So if it's got free gases in the atmosphere that contain oxygen, and if it's got hydrogen and oxygen trapped in the ice, then there's a way to process that, of course, that will released the things we need-- water to drink, hydrogen and oxygen as fuel and a way to generate electricity, and then oxygen to breathe. I think the first astronauts that walk on Mars will be arriving at a little place that's already built. They will be able to stand up, put on their suit in the 38% gravity, so you only weigh 40% of what you weigh on Earth, and go outside and open the air lock, and step into a little outpost that's already there. And so a big part of getting to Mars is not just building the rocket that will get us there, but how to set up a habitable environment on Mars in advance so everything doesn't need to be on board this rocket. When we land on another planet, whether it's Mars or the moon, when we're in our spaceship, what do we need in order to stay alive and where are we going to get it from? It's a really important question. The fundamental thing that we need, of course, is something to breathe, which is oxygen. And then because the environment is so harsh, we need some way to generate heat. And so hydrogen is a pretty nice resource to have up there. And then as soon as we've taken care of breathing and not freezing to death, the third thing we need is water. So if you...

About the Instructor

Impossible things happen. At age nine, Chris Hadfield knew he wanted to go to space. He eventually went there three times, becoming a commander of the International Space Station. In his MasterClass, Chris teaches you what it takes to explore space and what the future holds for humans in the final frontier. Learn about the science of space travel, life as an astronaut, and how flying in space will forever change the way you think about living on Earth.


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I'm not trying to be an astronaut, but I'm fascinated by space and technology and Chris Hadfield is one of my heroes. I am currently studying software engineering and there was so much perspective and motivational material in here that you can apply to any discipline. I absolutely loved this course and I'm pretty sure I'll watch the entire thing again before too long.

An amazing personality, a great journey and so many ideas useful down on earth as well.

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Amazing class, Hadfield is truly masterful in both delivery and content.



This would be pretty cool to test out when on the Moon. Assuming that the polar ice turns out to be similar than to what is on Mars. We might get to see how this works in only a few more years or so. We can beta test all kinds of experiments on the Moon (not that far from Earth), in a really compressed time frame. Then once we have all of our machines working properly, we can send them to Mars. I am excited!

William D.

Read "The Case for Mars" by Richard Wagner & Robert Zubrin. They talk in detail about ISRU. Many of the points Chris was talking about have yet to be verified. Has any of the rovers actual found WATER? I don't think so. The Polar Ice Caps are CO2. No probe has ever been there. What are you using for power? Solar and/or Nuclear. Questions abound with no answers.

Maddie W.

Really cool idea to send cargo ships beforehand so we don't have to worry as much about life support issues when the crew first arrives on Mars. I am also curious if this changes where the crew is set to land. It seems like ice is fairly abundant on the surface so perhaps it will just be a compromise between scientific interest and habitability when choosing where to establish a base on Mars.

Steve H.

Using electrolysis to break down ice into its components of hydrogen and oxygen requires access to the ice. Does this then affect where the robotic base is located, or is the ice readily accessible?

Grae M.

This lesson left me wanting far more detail. I still have so many questions.

Jerry R.

One step further - how can we make glucose from CO2? I know 6 C02 + 6 H20 = C6 H12 06 (GLUCOSE) + 012 AND ALSO THAT 3 C02 + 3 CH4 = C6 H12 06 (GLUCOSE). But what catalyst would actually make the formulas work? From this glucose many things could be made, including food.

Pedro C.

Clear and practical aproach to in situ resourse utilization at Mars!!! Excellent!!! It would be even greater to make some activities on electrolisis, obtaining oxigen and hydrogen. I did not understand why it is necessary to get CH4 (Methane) for fuel, when there would be enough hydrogen.

Karim E.

This lesson made me think of the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock. I believe that was the first successful colony in the US in 1620 consisting of 100 pilgrims. Death came early and frequently but some survived. For the previous 128 years since 1492 when Columbus landed there were multiple failed colonies when everyone died. It took the pilgrims 66 days to travel from the old world to the new world. Colonizing Mars might be similar.

Ramona T.

Loved the little bit of the chem lesson on this one and explained with simplicity that its possible to live on other bodies. Good lesson.

Maurice Y.

So cool that we can now harness the elements/ molecules, separate their components and combine or use them in a different method than nature's original purpose or form.