Above & Beyond

Comic: A Factory in a Petri Dish

How the first Martians will fuel their rockets using feces and bacteria

9 sec read

A comic strip.
Panel 1 (in space): OK, all species go extinct. It'll happen to us, but let's try and make that inevitable end happy later rather than sooner. To keep existing we're going to need to start living on other planets. A finite resources such as the Earth cannot sustain an ever-growing population indefinitely.
Panel 2 (Earth, hanging in space): At some point in our near future, a small craft will hang in the vast blackness between here and Mars. That craft will contain individuals intent on establishing the first human outpost on another world. This journey will be the most ambitious that any member of the human race has undertaken. In order to embark on it we will need to employ all the technological and scientific resources at our disposal.
Panel 3 (a DNA strand): One technology that will play a key role in this adventure will be synthetic biology, a mash-up of engineering and biology. Scientist Tadashi Nakano defines it as "designing and constructing biological modules, biological systems, and biological machines for useful purposes."
Panel 4 (a spacecraft in transit): It will take a long time to get to Mars–at best a year. That's a year in zero gravity, a year in the cramped confines of the spacecraft, a year breathing recycled air, and, most deadly of all, a year exposed to the radiation of deep space.
Panel 5 (a human body surrounded by radiation): NASA is developing a bio-capsule that counteracts the effects of radiation sickness. Placed inside the astronaut's body, it activates in the presence of radiation levels that would produce negative symptoms.
The comic continues:
Panel 6 (a rocket launches): Carrying things into space is really, really expensive–as much as $10,000 per pound. Up to two-thirds of any mission's payload is rocket fuel, so any way to reduce this weight saves money.
Panel 7 (a person sits on a toilet, the toilet is connected to a rocket fuel tank): Many rocket fuels are chemically complex, however, there is one that we can produce today using synthetic biology. Methan/Oxygen fuel and some of the micro-organisms needed to make it are conveniently found in our own faeces. Being able to produce rocket fuel on the surface of Mars could bring the payload weight down by as much as a third.
Panel 8 (a base on the surface of Mars): Once on the planet our Martian colonists will need somewhere to live. Initially the capsule will provide shelter, but it'll be cramped. After a year of living in each other's pockets our first Martians will want more room.
Panel 9 (a starry sky inside a petri dish): Synthetic biology can create bio-polymers that Martian colonists can use to 3D-print elements of living habitats. The explorers effectively go into space with an entire factory that can fit into a petri dish!
The comic ends.

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Above & Beyond section, which looks at our understanding of the universe beyond Earth. Click the logo to read more.