MAPS team at UC Davis named finalist in NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge
A UC Davis engineering team known as MAPS was named one of the five finalists for NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-Changing Idea Challenge. The MAPS team, a part of the Space and Satellite Systems Club, was selected for the final round along with teams from other prestigious academic institutions such as Harvard and M.I.T.
This year’s challenge was centered around a Martian greenhouse. Participating teams were required to make and demonstrate designs that would be cost effective, have the ability to make it to neighboring planets such as Mars in the near future and be capable of sustaining food production.
As NASA looks to continue space exploration, it first has to find solutions to some of the biggest problems that plague space traveling. One of these is food production. With a trip to Mars being approximated at six months long, it would be too expensive to send spaceships back and forth. With the BIG Idea Challenge, however, NASA is looking to find ways of self-sustainability in regards to food production for its astronauts. The greenhouses that have been designed by these teams are meant to accompany the idea of the Martian habitat that NASA is working on.
The BIG Idea Challenge not only brings prestige to those who are selected as finalists, but it brings various incentives to participate. These range from new knowledge and research skills, to resume building and networking opportunities. However the biggest prize of all is the shot at a summer internship at NASA if selected as the winner.
The process of building the current UC Davis team was a lengthy one, starting in October of 2018 when a faculty member emailed the BIG Idea Challenge to one of the members of the MAPS team, Cory George. George, the systems engineer for MAPS and a fourth-year aerospace and mechanical engineering major, then got in contact with Duha Bader, MAPS team leader and second-year aerospace science and mechanical engineering double major. They went on to look for members who could complete the team.
“It was quite difficult forming a team because we did not know exactly how to approach a competition like this since it was our first time entering one,” Bader said.
The right people needed to be found to ensure that this project would have the capability of reaching its full potential. Once these conditions were met, a team was assembled and the first general meeting took place in late October.
“That first meeting, we were right there coming up with ideas on the spot no matter how crazy or weird they were,” said Audrey Chamberlin, environmental control and life support systems lead and first-year aerospace science and engineering major. “I don’t even remember some of the things that we came up with, the stuff we thought about for two months then dropped.”
When designing a Martian greenhouse for NASA there are many aspects that must be researched and many obstacles that one must overcome. One of these obstacles that the team took into account was having a design that could withstand the Martian atmosphere. Bader explained there are many key systems that need to withstand various conditions.
“It is about structural design making sure that the greenhouse has very high psi [pounds per square inch] levels, so that way it none of the materials would break or to ensure they won’t sheer from any storm on Mars,” Bader said.
Other constraints they had to take into consideration when building their model was weight. If the project is too heavy, it would be too expensive to take to Mars. Radiation on the planet of Mars is harmful so the team had to think of ways to avoid radiation from affecting the greenhouse, such as their solution of implementing ice cell walls. They also needed to take into consideration what type of plants they would use for the greenhouse, since they had to ensure that the plants they suggested were capable of meeting the nutritional needs of the crew members who would travel to Mars.
Nonetheless, out of the various creative solutions that the team had, none were more interesting to NASA than the idea of the type of soil they were planning to use for the greenhouse and the idea of of bringing earthworms along on the trip to help with various functions such as the fertilization of plants. The team decided that for their design they would not be using soil from Earth but they would be using soil from Mars. This itself came with many questions such as how they would transform the Martian soil to a substance that is useful.
“NASA was really interested in that part [the soil] of the design and they wanted us to research it further,” said Journey Byland, soils lead for MAPS and second-year aerospace science and engineering major. “There are a lot of safety considerations having to do with soil. As long as we make sure it is safe and farmable, once it’s in the greenhouse there are a lot of opportunities.”
The team is very confident about their design for various reasons, including their technology efficiency levels (Technology Ratings Level, or TRL), and the methods that they used to create their greenhouse.
“We put together what works and what is proven to work over many years and because of that we are able to stay confident in our design,” said Jackson Liao, the structures lead for MAPS and second-year aerospace science and mechanical engineering major.
The team did acknowledge the unknown. Though they are using methods that have been proven to work, there are still some components to their design that need more research in order to know if they are truly feasible.
“Although we do have things that have a high TRL, we have things that might not work, such as the earthworms in the soil,” Chamberlin said. “There is not a lot of research about whether or not you could freeze earthworms for six months and have them survive, so that just takes a lot of outside research.”
Along with the MAPS team, there are various prestigious institutions participating in the challenge and many of these universities have various resources at their disposal. A clear example would be the number of faculty members that are participating. While the Davis team has one faculty member, other schools have up to five faculty members. And within some of the schools those members specialize in fields related to this challenge.
Along with the various resources at the disposal of some of these schools, their teams are also composed of graduate students and undergraduate students who are currently in their upper division coursework.
The Davis team, though, consists of one senior with the rest being first and second years, so many of them have not yet started their upper division coursework. Due to this, they have had to do a lot of structural analysis and research on their own to truly understand the concepts that they were applying to their design. As a result they have developed not only a real sense of pride representing UC Davis but an underdog mentality.
“I feel really cool representing UC Davis as kind of the underdogs,” said Lucas Brown, irrigation lead for MAPS and first-year aerospace science and engineering major. “These other groups are upper divisions students with a lot of advisors, and we are going in there [on the] same [level] as everyone else.”
Many of the other team members are also excited to compete against these schools, not only building their own reputation but helping build the reputation of UC Davis.
“It gives a name to how amazing Davis is and a name to the amazing resources that we have,” Chamberlin said.
The team members showed no concern about the opportunity of internships since they are still relatively young compared to those who usually receive internships from NASA. They believe they will have plenty of chances for future internships especially with their new-found experience.
The team will go and present its idea on April 23 and is keeping an open mind about the results that it may face at NASA. The members explained that even if they aren’t able to come home with a victory, they feel that they have already won. The knowledge, skills and recognition they have received for themselves and their university is irreplaceable, as they continue to compete and build on this experience.
“Even if we win or don’t win it was amazing that we made it to this point,” Chamberlin said.
Written by: Alexis Lopez— email@example.com