To save on weight, a detour to the moon is the best route to Mars according to new research. To save on weight, a detour to the moon is the best route to Mars according to new research. To save on weight, a detour to the moon is the best route to Mars according to new research. (Photo: Christine Daniloff / MIT)

Could a gas station on the moon help us get to Mars?

Bucking conventional wisdom, a team of MIT researchers has a novel approach for traveling to the Red Planet.

The moon might soon become a 7-Eleven franchise.

A team of MIT scientists have charted a course for Mars that they say is better than NASA’s previously disclosed route. The main difference between the two concepts is that the MIT version has astronauts using the moon as a pit stop on the way to Mars. Think of it as a gas station in outer space.

As the crow flies, the moon is technically out of the way and considered a detour, but stopping on the moon to resupply and refuel might actually make the years-long trip to Mars more efficient in the long run.

“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, a professor at MIT. “The idea of taking a detour into the lunar system … it’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.”

Mars travel and efficiency do go hand in hand. Last month, at an international conference of space experts held in Jerusalem, NASA entered into a partnership with Israel for upcoming missions to Mars. Israeli space technology is known for being extremely light in weight. Indeed, a team of Israeli engineers is currently constructing a dishwasher-sized spacecraft that's headed straight for the moon.

"Our two countries have had a long history of cooperation in space exploration, scientific discovery and research, and we look forward to the opportunities this new agreement provides us to build upon this partnership," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. The U.S. space agency says it is also looking to Israel to help conduct joint missions, exchange personnel and scientific data and share facilities. The agreement opens the door for U.S. scientists to tap into the vast technological resources that Israel has to offer.

Matt Damon plays a NASA astronaut stuck on Mars and struggling to survive in The Martian.Matt Damon plays a NASA astronaut stuck on Mars and struggling to survive in The Martian.

In the past few months, Mars has become something of a cultural touchstone. "The Martian," a film starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet for four years, has led the box office through most of the prestigious fall movie season. The scientifically true-to-life action-adventure has managed to spark national conversations about everything from growing potatoes to being MacGyver on Mars.

When a group dedicated to starting a human colony on Mars issued a public call seeking volunteers to move to the most isolated cul-de-sac in the known universe, 200,000 people signed up for the opportunity. That number was recently whittled down to 100 and consists of a community of global citizens ready to become the ultimate homesteaders.

Florence Porcel wants to move to MarsFlorence Porcel of France was one of 200,000 people from around the world who volunteered to move to Mars. (Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

The MIT researchers, who also collaborated with scientists in Los Angeles and Tokyo, proposed their new "let's use the moon as a layover" theory in a paper published in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets. (Yes, there is actually a Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.)

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to ever step foot on the moon and who was the keynote speaker at the space conference last month in Israel, is now advocating for travel to Mars. Like the MIT researchers, Aldrin believes we need to develop refueling resources in the vicinity of the moon. "We need space stations on both sides of the moon, to robotically assemble the elements of a permanent habitation for Mars," Aldrin told From The Grapevine.

The 85-year-old Aldrin realizes he may not be around to see human colonies – or 7-Elevens – sprout up on Mars. But he views that planet's colonization as part of our destiny. "It is in our DNA, our makeup as human beings, to have a curiosity to expand our knowledge and to explore beyond the present limits," he tells us. "It is an inevitable mark of progress."


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