U-M, MSU Researchers Among Finalists for NASA Challenge to Create Greenhouse for Mars

Students from U-M and MSU are creating a greenhouse design for Mars as part of NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace's BIG Idea Challenge. // Photograph Courtesy of BIG Idea Challenge

Students from Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan and East Lansing’s Michigan State University are finalists for a challenge set forth by NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace to provide ideas for the design, installation, and sustainable operation of a habitat-sized greenhouse for Mars. The announcement was made Monday.

The students from the Michigan universities are on a team with students from Penn State University, Purdue University, and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Their project is called Greenhouse Attachment for the Ice Home Architecture.

Other projects that have made it to the final stage include Dartmouth College’s Deployable Enclosed Martian Environment for Technology, Eating, and Recreation; Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Biosphere Engineered Architecture for Viable Extraterrestrial Residence; University of California, Davis’ Martian Agricultural and Plant Sciences; and University of Colorado Boulder, Harvard University, Cornell University, and University of Hawaii-Manoa’s Feeding the Martians: Designing a Marsboreal Bioregenerative Food Garden.

“I always look forward to these competitions because they draw the creativity of the next generation of researchers and engineers,” says Drew Hope, manager of the NASA Game Changing Development Program.

The competition is called the 2019 Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, and the Mars greenhouse design is meant to complement the Mars ice home, a cost-effective habitat concept that provides the large flexible workspace necessary for an early Martian outpost. A greenhouse could assist with Mars missions and long-term lunar missions.

The teams must tackle crop cultivation, or food production, as well as the mechanical and aerospace engineering elements of the design. The goal of the challenge is to create a greenhouse design that will respond to and provide a vision for the plausible use of plants for space missions and incorporate as much as possible from in-situ resource utilization.

Students and their faculty advisors will propose habitat size, form, and a system design concept that provides the surface area and volume needs for efficient plant production balanced with the volume and mass constraints of an inflatable structure-based construction.

“We intentionally did not define how the workspace should be used so it would be an open invitation to the passionate people who dream of living on a new world,” says Kevin Kempton, element manager of the Game Changing Development Program.

Designs should indicate the potential to use plants for food production and for supporting environmental control and life support systems. Designers must consider ease of fabrication and deployment, technology readiness, and operations in Martian environments.

A Mars greenhouse also could strengthen the emotional health and well-being of astronauts, as a splash of green on a barren red landscape could serve as an oasis.

The teams will continue developing their proposed concepts, submit a technical paper, and create a prototype of their design before presenting their concepts in a face-to-face design review at the 2019 BIG Idea Forum in April at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

Each team will receive a $6,000 stipend, and NASA will also offer up to five summer internships for students participating in the forum.

The challenge is sponsored by NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development program and managed by the National Institute of Aerospace.