A radiation-shielded, inflatable greenhouse with a hydroponic growing system designed by undergraduate students at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering could sustain four astronauts on a 600-day mission to Mars as soon as 2030.
The students’ Deployable, Enclosed Martian Environment for Technology, Eating and Recreation (DEMETER) concept—the acronym is also the name of the Greek goddess of the harvest—won first place in the 2019 NASA Breakthrough, Innovative and Game Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, the agency announced on April 24.
The team pitched their idea to scientists at NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) in competition with four other finalist teams.
NASA and NIA are seeking innovative ideas for the design, installation and sustainable operation of a habitat-sized Mars greenhouse, with the primary purpose of food production, according to NASA. The agency says an efficient and safe greenhouse design could assist with Mars missions and long-term lunar missions.
The 8-meter-high by 16-m-wide DEMETER includes an automated hydroponic growing system that uses a 3-m-tall cylinder inside of a torus, with the cylinder storing the water and nutrient delivery and recycling systems. A running track for astronaut recreation circles the vertically integrated assembly of growing trays.
The team used a 1⁄6-scale prototype to show folding methods for 1.5-m-long hydroponic growing trays, which nest against the central cylinder during transport. It also tested growing crops in a nutrient film technique hydroponic system to refine their design.
Dartmouth edged ahead when scored on the completeness of the proposed design, low system mass, optimization for food production and design simplicity, says Kevin Kempton, NASA program element manager and one of seven judges.
The team used “top-notch systems engineering throughout,” Kempton says. “That began with a systems overview that identified their system of interest relative to external systems, such as sunlight, heat, and water in the Martian environment.”
Kempton says another strength is that the components all appear relatively low risk and are based largely on a habitat design developed in a 2017 NASA feasibility study, which was the basis for the competition. “The team estimates it would take three to four missions to become a cost-effective option,” versus the cost of transporting food from Earth, Kempton says.
The team also scored high marks for innovation for the proposed concept of operations and for system deployment, which begins with robotic transport of the packaged greenhouse payload from the landing site to the deployment site. The design “seemed to have the highest level of technical maturity and it would likely require less technology development effort to get a DEMETER-base design up and running for the initial Martian outpost,” Kempton says.
NASA plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2024, with future missions in the 2030s, when a Mars greenhouse concept would potentially be viable, says Drew Hope, NASA program manager.
MIT placed second for its Biosphere Engineered Architecture for Viable Extraterrestrial Residence (BEAVER) concept. Plans include a spiral hydroponic design track in a multilevel facility featuring an enclosed waterfall for astronaut relaxation. Other finalists included designs from three state universities, California Davis, Colorado Boulder and Michigan Ann Arbor.
The finalist teams receive a shot at five NASA internships, recognition and a $6,000 stipend to travel to NASA’s Langley, Va., research center to present. All original ideas and concepts are credited to the student teams, but NASA has the option to take any portion of the ideas for use in future NASA mission planning, Hope says.