A team of aerospace engineering sciences students at the University of Colorado at Boulder has been selected as one of six finalists in NASA's MarsPort Engineering Design Student Competition to design a deployable greenhouse that could help support astronauts on a long-term mission to Mars.
Teams from Cornell University, Olin College of Engineering, St. Louis University, University of Central Florida and University of Florida also were selected as finalists from among 21 proposals.
The CU-Boulder team, which is working with assistant professor David Klaus, includes seven undergraduates, Robert Gjestvang, Sara Lewandowski, Kate Atkinson, Aaron Frey, Colleen Higgins, Shawn Bockstahler and Ryan Ries, along with doctoral student Jim Clawson.
As a finalist, the team will receive up to $2,000 from NASA to support its efforts. In May, the students will attend a design conference at Kennedy Space Center in Florida where they will present their work to leading NASA, industry and university professionals. NASA plans to incorporate technological innovations from the six teams into its engineering trade studies and evaluate them against other leading concepts to enable the future human exploration of Mars.
The overall goal is to design a greenhouse that will help support six astronauts on three long-term missions to Mars over a period of 20 years. Optimally, the greenhouse would produce enough food to meet 25 percent of the astronauts' dietary needs, while also generating 50 percent of their oxygen needs.
Among the many challenges the teams face are Mars' low-gravity environment (only one-third that on Earth), extreme temperature variation between day and night, a very thin atmosphere and reduced energy from the sun. A successful greenhouse design will have to incorporate supplemental heat and light, a renewable source of power and a system to recycle water, among other requirements.
The CU-Boulder team has proposed a design that combines elements of a modular, transparent greenhouse and an opaque, inflatable structure.
"There are a lot of engineering trade-offs involved in optimizing a system for growing plants on Mars," said Klaus, who also serves as associate director of BioServe Space Technologies, a research center in the aerospace engineering department that has ongoing studies pertaining to plant growth in a zero-gravity space environment.
One of the biggest outstanding questions for the deployment of a greenhouse on Mars, according to Klaus, is what effect the Red Planet's reduced gravity will have on plant growth.
"No one is completely clear on what it's going to take to build a greenhouse for Mars, so the students' work may introduce some valuable new ideas," he said.
The team also is planning to provide community outreach as part of the project, including making presentations to area K-12 students and other groups.