An Analysis on the feasibility of Creating Rocket Fuel on Mars

By: Domeic Marseglia

This article will focus on the likelihood of whether the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) would be able to produce jet fuel to ascend into the Martian heavens, like it did in the book The Martian By Andy Weir. A book in which Mark Watney an American botanist/mechanical engineer recruited by NASA is stranded on the planet Mars, and the story of his survival and eventual journey home. In the book MAV is a rocket meant to be used by the astronauts to depart from Mars’s atmosphere and get to the ship to take them home. This analysis aims to prove using current information about the Martian atmosphere, as well as the use of current technological breakthroughs, that it would, be in fact, possible to create rocket fuel using resources that are readily available on Mars, as well as salvaged resources that could be used repeatedly on the trip. Throughout the book there is an invaluable piece of technology, called the oxygenator that aids Mark Watney in his escape from Mars. This technology is similar to NASA’s current day Oxygen Generation System (OGS). The OGS is described on a NASA web page about systems that exist in real life as well as in the book The Martian, “the Oxygen Generation System, which reprocesses the atmosphere of the spacecraft to continuously provide breathable air efficiently and sustainably. The system produces oxygen through a process called electrolysis, which splits water molecules into their component oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere, while the hydrogen is either discarded into space or fed into the Sabatier System, which creates water from the remaining byproducts in the station's atmosphere.” [2] It is never explicitly said in the book what kind of system is in operation in the MAV, but there is a modern-day equivalent in testing today. Although it wouldn’t make sense for the MAV to possess an oxygenator. It would make significantly more sense for it to be operating the previously described Oxygen Generation System. While the old Oxygenator is still currently used to produce Oxygen for the astronauts, the fact that it relies on water as a source for its oxygen production would be a problem on Mars, because all the water brought by the astronauts will theoretically be turned into hydrogen for the return mission, as well as breathable oxygen by an oxygenator in the habitat the astronauts occupy, which this article will discuss later. Since the Martian atmosphere is primarily composed of carbon dioxide (CO2) there has been a push for technologies that could incorporate the use of C02 to create useful products for the exploration of Mars. An article on the subject describes how NASA is incentivizing this research with competitions, “NASA's new CO2 Conversion Challenge, conducted under the Centennial Challenges program, is a public competition seeking novel ways to convert carbon dioxide into useful compounds. Such technologies will allow us to manufacture products using local, indigenous resources on Mars, and can also be implemented on Earth by using both waste and atmospheric carbon dioxide as a resource.” [6] This push for a technology that can make use of the abundant C02 on Mars has produced a more modern machine which is referred to in The Martian as the Oxygenator, “In the Hab, we had the Oxygenator, a large piece of equipment that could break CO2 apart and give the oxygen back.” [7] This piece of equipment, although not currently in use, is in the testing phase. It goes by the name of the MOXIE CO2 compressor. The way the MOXIE functions is described in an article by PRWeb Newswire: “Through a process called solid oxide electrolysis--think of a fuel cell working in reverse--MOXIE will demonstrate the ability to produce O2 from CO2 in the Martian atmosphere. With CO2 representing approximately 96% of the thin Martian atmosphere, the technology could be used to generate breathable air for astronauts while on Mars and potentially provide fuel for their return journey back to earth.” [1] This new technology that was an inspiration for the system in The Martian could enable astronauts to one day be able to go to Mars and, with nothing other than a MOXIE, be able to produce breathable oxygen. Oxygen isn’t only useful for breathing, it is also one of two commonly used ingredients in rocket fuel, as well as fuel for other space exploration technologies. As is described in an article titled: Scaling the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) for Mars Sample Return, published by IEEE during the 2018 IEEE Aerospace Conference: “The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) is a payload that NASA JPL and MIT are developing to be aboard the Mars 2020 rover, aimed to demonstrate and test Martian ISRU. MOXIE uses solid oxide electrolysis (SOE) to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere. ISRU-produced oxygen can be used as a propellant for a Mars Ascent Vehicle.” [5] The emergence of this new technology is good news for the production of rocket fuel on Mars, because the primary propellent would have to be liquid oxygen (LOX). LOX on NASA’s web page is described as one of two ingredients to produce a “very high energy propellent”:


(NASA Rocket Fuels)
This leaves the question of where to get hydrazine which is a combination of hydrogen and nitrogen as described by Mark Watney when he is trying to create a machine that will produce water from hydrazine to give to his potato plants: “Then, I’ll release Hydrazine, VERY SLOWLY, over the iridium catalyst, to turn it in to N2 and H2. I’ll direct the hydrogen to a small area and burn it.” [7] Luckily enough we know Nitrogen can be found on Mars in Martian rocks. This was discovered by the Mars Curiosity rover and is described in an article by the paper: The Nation giving an explanation of how Mars has the potential for life: “By drilling into Martian rocks, Curiosity found evidence of nitrates, compounds containing nitrogen that can be used by living organisms.” [3] The final ingredient to produce our rocket fuel to power the MAV would have to be brought to Mars in the form of water. The idea of using this reclaimed water isn’t new in NASAs ideas for space exploration. As was described on NASA’s website in an article about water recovery: “On the International Space Station, no drop of sweat, tears, or even urine goes to waste. The Environmental Control and Life Support System recovers and recycles water from everywhere: urine, hand washing, oral hygiene, and other sources. Through the Water Recovery System (WRS), water is reclaimed and filtered, ready for consumption. One astronaut simply put it, “Yesterday’s coffee turns into tomorrow’s coffee.” [2] The reason of why this system is so effective is because water can then be split into its two components of oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be used in the production of the hydrazine, and the rocket fuel is complete. Since the Maned crews will need to carry water with them on the entirety of the journey it should be readily available for the consumption of the rocket as was described in The Martian when NASA decides that Watney must use all of his remaining water to power his rocket off of the planet: “For every kilogram of hydrogen, it can make 13 kilograms of fuel. Watney has 550 liters of water. We'll have him electrolyze it to get 60kg of Hydrogen.” [7] Hydrogen being the last piece of the puzzle will allow manned missions to Mars without them having to bring fuel with them for the return trip. Making the possibility of a mission to Mars that much more feasible. In The Marian Mark has a hard time producing all of the ingredients that he needs to launch the MAV into orbit. This is because of time constraints. When given the right conditions and granted that enough time is taken to collect all the ingredients. A potential unlimited supply of rocket fuel could be harvested from the red planet. With these ingredients: Oxygen produced by the CO2 in the Martian atmosphere, Nitrogen harvested from Martian rocks, and Hydrogen salvaged from the crew’s reusable water supply. As well as some new innovations from NASA and other cooperating organizations rocket fuel has the potential to be made and used for the exploration of Mars just like in The Martian.


1. "Air Squared Awarded Contract to Develop Scroll Compressor in NASA MOXIE Demonstration Unit for Mars 2020 Mission." PRWeb Newswire, 2016.
2. Fox, Steve. “Nine Real NASA Technologies in 'The Martian'.” NASA, NASA, 13 Aug. 2015,
3. "Mars has Nitrogen, Key to Life: NASA." The Nation, 2015.
5. Nasr, Maya, Forrest Meyen, and Jeffrey Hoffman. Scaling the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) for Mars Sample Return, IEEE, 2018, doi:10.1109/AERO.2018.8396365.
6. Shannon Ridinger for MSFC News. "NASA Competition Aims to Convert Carbon Dioxide on Mars into Useful Products." UPI Space Daily, 2018.
7. Weir, Andy. The Martian: A Novel. Crown Publishers, New York, 2014.