Journey to Mars: Detour to the Moon is the Best Way to Travel to the Red Planet

First Posted: Oct 15, 2015 06:55 AM EDT

As NASA gears up for a mission to Mars, planning a route to the Red Planet is important. Now, researchers have found that to save on weight, a detour to the moon is the best route to Mars.

Previous studies have suggested that lunar soil and water ice in certain craters of the moon could potentially be mined and converted to fuel. With the assumption that this tech exists at the time of a Mars mission, taking a detour to the moon to refuel actually reduces the mass of a mission upon launch by a staggering 68 percent.

So how does it work? The researchers developed a model to determine the best route to Mars, assuming the availability of resources and fuel-generating infrastructure on the moon. Based on their calculations, they found the optimal route to Mars in order to minimize the mass that would have to be launched from Earth.

The most mass-efficient path actually involves launching a crew from Earth with just enough fuel to get into orbit around Earth. A fuel-producing plant on the surface of the moon would then launch tankers of fuel into space, where they would enter gravitational orbit. The tankers would be picked up by the Mars-bound crew, which would then head to a nearby fueling station to gas up before heading to Mars.

"This is completely against the established common wisdom of how to go to Mars, which is a straight shot to Mars, carry everything with you," said Olivier de Weck, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The idea of taking a detour into the lunar's very unintuitive. But from an optimal network and big picture view, this could be very affordable in the long term, because you don't have to ship everything from Earth."

The findings could mean that a network of "stops" before Mars is the best way to reach the Red Planet. With further study, researchers may be able to determine the most cost-effective and safest method to travel to Mars.

"Our ultimate goal is to colonize Mars and to establish a permanent, self-sustainable human presence there," said Takuto Ishimatsu, one of the researchers. "However, equally important, I believe that we need to 'pave a road' in space so that we can travel between planetary bodies in an affordable way."

The findings are published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

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