Future human exploration of Mars will rely on local Martian resources to reduce the mass, cost, and risk of space exploration launched from Earth. NASA’s In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) Project seeks to produce mission consumables from local Martian resources, such as atmospheric gas. The Martian atmosphere, however, contains dust particles in the 2-to-10 -micrometer range. These dust particles must be removed before the Martian atmospheric gas can be processed. The low pressure of the Martian atmosphere, at 5 to 10 mbars, prevents the development of large voltages required for a standard electrostatic precipitator. If the voltage is increased too much, the corona transitions into a glow/streamer discharge unsuitable for the operation of a precipitator. If the voltage is not large enough, the dust particles are not sufficiently charged and the field is not strong enough to drive the particles to the collector.

A method using electrostatic fields has been developed to collect dust from gaseous environments at low pressures, specifically carbon dioxide at pressures around 5 to 10 mbars. This method, commonly known as electrostatic precipitation, is a mature technology in air at one atmosphere. In this case, the high voltages required for the method to work can easily be achieved. However, in carbon dioxide at low pressures, such as those found on Mars, large voltages are not possible.

The innovation reported here consists of two concentric cylindrical electrodes set at specific potential difference that generate an electric field that produces a corona capable of imparting an electrostatic charge to the incoming dust particles. The strength of the field is carefully balanced so as to produce a stable charging corona at 5 to 10 mbars, and is also capable of imparting a force to the particles that drives them to the collecting electrode.

There are only two possible ways that dust can be removed from Martian atmospheric gas intakes: with this electrostatic precipitator design, and with the use of filters. However, filters require upstream compression of the gas to be treated because the atmospheric pressure on Mars is too close to vacuum to use a vacuum pump downstream to the filter to draw the gas through the filter. The electrostatic precipitator is the best and more efficient solution for this environment. No other precipitator designs have been developed for the environment of Mars due to the challenges of the low atmospheric pressure.

Dust particles are charged using corona generation around the high-voltage discharge electrode, which ionizes gas molecules. Since the atmospheric gas intakes for the ISRU processing chambers will likely be cylindrical, cylindrical precipitator geometry was chosen. The electrostatic precipitator design presented here removes simulated Martian dust particles in the required range in a simulated Martian atmospheric environment. The current-voltage (I-V) characteristic curves taken for the nine precipitator configurations at 9 mbars of pressure showed that a cylindrical collecting electrode 7.0 cm in diameter with a concentric positive high-voltage electrode 100 μm thick provides the best range of voltage and charging corona current. This precipitator design is effective for the size of the dust particles expected in the Martian atmosphere. Mass determination, as well as microscopic images and particle size distributions of dust collected on a silicon wafer placed directly below the precipitator with the field on and off, showed excellent initial results.

This work was done by Carlos Calle of Kennedy Space Center, and J. Sid Clements of the Appalachian State University Department of Physics and Astronomy. KSC-13657

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2012 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from this issue here.

Read more articles from the archives here.