Conceptual Martian greenhouse created by the UC Davis undergraduate team in 2019 presented at this year’s ASCE conference


Two years after being recognized by NASA for their conceptual design, the team is reflecting on how this project influenced where they stand today.

In 2019, a team of eight UC Davis undergraduates developed a concept for the Martian Greenhouse of Agriculture and Plant Sciences (MAPS) which was selected among the 5 finalists in the 2019 NASA BIG Idea Challenge. . Two years later, their ideas continue to circulate as their paper was presented in April 2021 at the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) Earth and Space Conference, while team members continue to research new and varied opportunities.

The conference, which, according to their website, “aims to bring together the experience and knowledge of experts in the aerospace industry to share and discuss the latest research and engineering techniques that affect the exploration and colonization of space, “was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 before being delayed for a year by the pandemic.

The fifth-year aerospace and mechanical engineering double major and MAPS team leader Duha Bader represented the team in presenting the article at the conference, and she commemorated the opportunity with a recent article on LinkedIn where she thanked project mentor and former NASA astronaut Professor Stephen Robinson as well as his teammates.

“Last week I had the honor to speak at the ASCE Earth and Space 2021 annual conference as the author of the article” Martian Agriculture and Plant Science (MAPS): A Food Production Solution for Sustainable Human Presence on Mars “”, read Bader’s Publier. “MAPS… presents a unique method of transforming Martian regolith into arable soil as well as the implementation of an intelligent irrigation system. “

Journey Byland, a UC Davis alumnus and soil manager for MAPS, explained via email the contents of the technical report originally written to meet the challenge of designing “a Martian surface greenhouse capable of providing sufficient calories and nutrition for a crew of four astronauts. ”

While the popular solution was to incorporate hydroponics, which the United States Department of Agriculture said is a method of growing plants in a “soilless medium” using a “nutrient solution root medium,” said Byland that their team had chosen to use Martian instead. regolith, or soil, for planting crops.

Lucas Brown, a fourth-year physics student at UC Davis and irrigation manager for MAPS, explained why the team made the decision.

“While using hydroponics is the first and most obvious choice for designing a greenhouse on Mars, I think there is a real long-term benefit to exploring the use of Martian regolith,” said Brown by e-mail. “One of those advantages is that it would allow direct use of resources present on Mars rather than relying on fully man-made systems that must be brought in with each launch, another advantage being that it could contribute to the soil research that could benefit us here on Earth as we adapt to a changing climate.

Byland explained how they came up with this concept.

“[We] designed a system that would take Martian regolith, rinse it with water to dissolve the [toxic] perchlorate salts and use an electron beam decontamination system to kill any bacteria, ”Byland said.

Besides having a unique design, another factor that set the team apart was its interdisciplinary approach, as it drew inspiration from a wide variety of fields such as agriculture, structural engineering, thermodynamics and Moreover.

“We drew on a wide variety of resources when producing our design: professors with a variety of specialties, friends who grew plants indoors, fellow students with a major in engineering and a specialization in nutrition. , online databases on the composition of the Martian soil, manuals, research articles, etc. “Isabella Elliot, a fourth-year aerospace science and engineering major, said via email. “I believe that collaboration and consultation are part of the foundations of productive research and design: science is not a lonely discipline, and working alone without the contribution of other specialties can be detrimental to a project. . “

Elliot gave an example of how collaboration played a role in their project.

“One person suggested that the LEDs in our greenhouse turn on and off successively in order to mimic the movement of the sun in the sky over earth to help plants grow more evenly and produce a more uniform crop, a concept that would never have crossed my mind but made absolute sense, “Elliot said.” Working with people from other fields as an engineer is extremely informative and has fundamentally helped our design take shape and thrive. ”

Brown had a similar appreciation for the role of interdisciplinary science in their project.

“Engineering and design projects like this are inherently interdisciplinary, as there are so many different problems to solve and constraints to work with,” Brown said. “Not only did we have to think of ways to maintain a crew’s food supply for several years in a small and isolated environment, but we also had to consider the many limitations of this design that come with the launch of hardware. on top of a rocket, through interplanetary. space, and later deploying it remotely on the surface of a hostile planet where temperatures reach far below anything seen on Earth.

However, he also stressed the importance of niche research and specialists, explaining that throughout the project their team both “consulted with specialists in specific areas and delegated research responsibilities to different people from across the board. the team ”.

“It helps to have a wide range of people working on and communicating on this issue, all of them employing different areas of expertise,” Brown said. “I personally know that I am a strong advocate of breaking down barriers between disciplines for this very reason. One of the things I’ve thought about a lot these days is trying to increase open collaboration between science and non-STEM disciplines like philosophy or sociology to ensure that the scientific community continues to advance and develop. ” employ creativity while being self-reflective. on things like methodology and social responsibility.

Elliot and Brown both reflected on what they learned from the MAPS project that would influence them to approach the problem differently if they were working on it today.

“Now that some time has passed and I have more technical experience, my problem-solving repertoire has grown considerably and I imagine that my approach to problems would be more methodical and less sporadic”, Elliot said. “More than anything, I would know where to start to look for answers when difficult questions arise. ”

Brown spoke about the perspective the past two years have given him on the overlooked but essential aspects of space travel design.

“I […] I would have spent a little more time thinking about the role of our greenhouse interior design as a psychological aid to the astronaut crew, ”said Brown. “While this has definitely been given some thought in our design, I increasingly realize that a Martian journey is likely to be extremely taxing on a human level, and special attention needs to be paid to how living spaces like our greenhouse are designed to maximize crew comfort if such a mission is to be successful. We’re really just beginning to understand the psychological effects of a human transition to long-term space adventures. “

Several team members also described where they are now, how the early years of their college experience brought them to where they are today and what their plans are for the future.

Byland graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Physics in June and begins his graduate studies this fall in the Physics Department at UC Davis as a doctoral student, currently studying experimental condensed matter physics.

Elliot, a major in English when he started out at college, boosted his interest in aerospace while working on the MAPS project and is currently working with a professor on power generation for hybrid electric aircraft, in the hope to work in the future on the design of sustainable air and space vehicles.

“It’s always nice to come back to this project,” said Elliot. “It has been one of the most influential parts of my college career so far and I am proud of the work my team and I have produced.”

Jackson Liao, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student on the team who has always been passionate about space exploration, also saw his interests solidify through the experiences and connections that the NASA BIG Idea Challenge gave him.

“Being at the forefront of new ideas for space exploration purposes has allowed me to appreciate even more the technicality, the challenges and the creativity that accompany the development of new technologies for space”, Liao said.

As for Brown, he realized after the competition ended that he wanted to pursue physics rather than aerospace engineering; he found himself gravitating towards abstract problems, especially since they are linked to space and the universe. He is now aiming to attend a graduate school of physics in the future and has research aspirations in one of the many space fields.

“I think that partly because of this project, I am also increasingly interested in the intersection of physics and engineering with other disciplines from philosophy to sociology and politics”, Brown said. “When you’re working on projects like this that force you to think about the future of technology and humanity’s presence in space, I think it’s important to really thinking big, making sure you challenge fundamental assumptions along the way, to ensure that the future you are helping to shape is truly a better world for all. So these are all ideas that I will take with me as I move forward in my career.

Written by: Sonora Slater – [email protected]

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