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Mars Sorption Compressor Overview

As an extension of JPL's extensive cryocooler sorption research, adsorption compressor technology was examined as a reliable, efficient, cost-effective means of extracting and compressing atmospheric CO2 on the surface of Mars. The MAAC sorption compressor flight experiment was developed as the first stage of a Mars in-situ CO2 to O2 chemical conversion process; the work was part of a collaborative effort between Johnson Space Center (JSC), Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Lockheed-Martin Astronautics (LMA).

The goal of the research was to achieve considerable mass and cost savings for future planetary exploration missions by utilizing indigenous planetary resources, rather than transporting all of the necessary materials from Earth. These types of processes are classified under the rubric of In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). One form of ISRU process is the production of propellants on planets for surface exploration or for return transport to Earth. Rather than carry all of the necessary propellants from Earth, it may be possible to use an In Situ Propellant Production (ISPP) process for generating the necessary oxidizer and/or fuel from various chemical compounds indigenous to the planet.

The most readily available resource on Mars is the atmosphere. Hence, carbon dioxide (CO2), which makes up more than 95% of the atmosphere, is a primary resource being considered for early Mars missions. However, the Mars atmospheric pressure is only 6 to 10 torr (0.1 to .15 psia), whereas most ISPP processes operate at approximately 760 to 3800 torr (1 to 5 atm.). Therefore, a CO2 collection and compression device is required that is relatively small, lightweight, power efficient, tolerant to dust contamination, rugged and reliable enough to operate for long periods under the severe daily and seasonal temperature variations.

Photo of MAAC Flight Experimant

MAAC Flight Experiment

A sorption compressor, which satisfies the needed requirements, was developed and qualified for test on the 2001 Mars Global Surveyor Mission. Called the Mars Atmosphere Acquisition & Compression (MAAC) Flight Experiment, it was to be part of the first technology demonstration of oxygen production on the surface of Mars. Its sorption compressor contains virtually no moving parts and achieves its compression by alternately cooling and heating a sorbent material which absorbs low pressure gas at low temperatures and drives off high pressure gas at higher temperatures. Also, by utilizing the large daily temperature swing on Mars to contribute to the heating and cooling of the sorption compressor, increased energy efficiency is realized.

With the cancellation of the 2001 Mars Global Surveyor Lander, the MAAC Flight Experiment was put aside awaiting a future launch opportunity. Had the mission gone ahead, MAAC would have been integrated with four other experiments in a payload called the Mars In-situ propellant production Precursor (MIP). The goal of these five experiments was to pave the way for future robotic and human missions that rely on propellants produced using Martian in-situ resources as feedstock.


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