NASA's $1 Million Mars-Settling Challenge: Turn CO2 into Sugar

NASA Mars Base Concept
An artist's illustration of astronaut pioneers on Mars. Building a self-sustaining settlement on the Red Planet will require taking advantage of native Martian resources, exploration advocates stress. (Image credit: Pat Rawlings/NASA)

If you know your way around a chemistry lab, you could help humanity set up shop on Mars — and make some serious cash in the process.

NASA is challenging people throughout the United States to come up with a new and efficient way to convert carbon dioxide into glucose, a simple sugar. CO2 dominates the thin atmosphere of Mars, and energy-rich glucose is a great fuel for microbe-milking "bioreactors" that could manufacture a variety of items for future settlers of the Red Planet, NASA officials said.

"Enabling sustained human life on another planet will require a great deal of resources, and we cannot possibly bring everything we will need. We have to get creative,” said Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which is running the new $1 million "CO2 Conversion Challenge." [8 Cool Mars Destinations Humans Could Explore]

"If we can transform an existing and plentiful resource like carbon dioxide into a variety of useful products, the space — and terrestrial — applications are endless," Roman said in a NASA statement.

The new competition consists of two phases. During Phase 1, applicants submit a detailed description of their CO2-to-glucose conversion system. Interested parties must register by Jan. 24, 2019 and submit their proposals by Feb. 28, 2019. 

In April, NASA will announce the selection of up to five finalists from this initial crop, each of whom will receive $50,000. 

Phase 2 will involve the construction and demonstration of a conversion system. Winning this round is worth $750,000, bringing the competition's total purse to $1 million (assuming five finalists are indeed selected from Phase 1).

You don't have to win, or even participate in, Phase 1 to compete in Phase 2. The challenge is open to citizens and permanent residents of the United States; foreign nationals can compete if they're part of a U.S.-based team. To register or learn more, go to the CO2 Conversion Challenge website.

The Centennial Challenges program, which is run by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, aims to encourage the development of exploration tech by engaging talented and innovative people beyond the traditional aerospace community .

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.