Water on Mars and 3D printing in space: Dubai supports cutting-edge research projects

One project supported by the Dubai Future Foundation involves generating water by using moisture-absorbing salts of the type found on Mars

VALLES MARINERIS, MARS  - Mars' own Grand Canyon, Valles Marineris, is shown on the surface of the planet in this composite image made aboard NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft. The image was taken from a video featuring high-resolution images from Arizona State University's Thermal Emission Imaging System multi-band camera on board the spacecraft. The mosaic was then colored to approximate how Mars would look to the human eye. Valles Marineris is 10 times longer, five times deeper and 20 times wider than Earth's Grand Canyon.  (Photo by NASA/Arizona State University via Getty Images)
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Construction in space using 3D printing, the creation of “bionic” plants, and generating water on Mars – these are just three of the daring research projects supported by a Dubai research foundation.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Accelerated Research (MBRCAR), an initiative of the Dubai Future Foundation (DFF), has funded multiple initiatives around the globe with an environmental focus and with applications on Earth as well as in space.

The research has been undertaken as part of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Settlement Challenge in collaboration with a new research funding platform called Guaana.

It comes amid the UAE’s deepening involvement in the space sector, something that next year will see the launch of the UAE Space Agency’s unmanned Mars probe.

Among dozens of research initiatives, DFF has highlighted three as having created interesting prototypes.

Cemvita, based in Houston in Texas, is working on ways to use atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert it into useful substances, mirroring the way in which plants turn carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen when photosynthesising. Cemvita describes it as involving “biomimicry”.

The atmosphere of Mars is more than 95 per cent carbon dioxide – compared with about 0.04 per cent of Earth’s atmosphere – so the “bionic” plants technology could be particularly useful there.

Other research, at the University of Arizona, has involved using robotics and 3D printing to produce construction building blocks, something that could help to create space settlements.

A key advantage is the materials’ modular nature, which means the final size of the construction is not restricted. Also, the risks to people when building in “extreme environments” are reduced and on Earth the project’s robots could do everything from tending plants to digging channels.

Another project, taking place at Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology, involves generating water by using moisture-absorbing salts of the type found on Mars. The MBRCAR grant has enabled the testing of prototype water farms at Boulby Mine in the north of England, where various salts are harvested.

Dr Javier Martin-Torres, principal investigator of the project, called Bottle, said that, as well as having “great impact” for Mars exploration and the UAE’s space ambitions, the scheme would also be useful on Earth. Globally, water shortages are forecast to increase population growth and climate change.

In all, 35 projects have now been completed, after applications from 275 scientists from universities and research institutes in countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Morocco, Singapore, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the UAE.

Abdulaziz AlJaziri, the DFF deputy chief executive, said the studies chosen reflected the MBRCAR's desire to support research related to space settlement, technology that "will improve life on Earth as well".

“This is in line with Dubai Future Foundation’s keenness to cooperate and partner with research institutions around the world to create new ideas and innovations for a better future,” he said.

That the UAE is supporting space-related research with additional uses on Earth mirrors the way in which technological advances brought about by major space organisations also often has dual applications.

For example, over many years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) has worked to develop more efficient fuel cells that, in turn, can be applied in everything from personal electronics to cars. Nasa’s research likewise often has environmental ambitions, such to eliminate space debris.

As well as the UAE Space Agency’s work on the Mars mission, there are a host of other space-related initiatives that the UAE is involved with.

Among them has been the setting up of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, the launch of UAE-owned satellites, and the inauguration of the Spacecraft Platform for Astronautic and Celestial Emulation laboratory at Khalifa University.