Two years after being recognized by NASA for their conceptual design, the team reflects on how this project influenced where they are today
In 2019, a team of eight UC Davis undergraduate students developed a concept for the Martian Agriculture and Plant Science (MAPS) Greenhouse that was selected as a Top 5 Finalist 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 the team members continue to pursue new and varied opportunities.
The conference, which according to their website, “aims to bring the experience and knowledge of experts in the aerospace industry together to share and discuss the latest research and engineering techniques that affect the exploration and settlement of space,” was originally set to take place in 2020 before being delayed a year by the pandemic.
Fifth-year aerospace science and mechanical engineering double major and MAPS team lead Duha Bader represented the team by presenting the paper at the conference, and she commemorated the opportunity with a recent LinkedIn post where she thanked project mentor and former NASA astronaut Professor Stephen Robinson, as well as her teammates.
“Last week, I had the honor of speaking at the annual ASCE Earth and Space Conference 2021 as an Author for the ‘Martian Agriculture and Plant Science (MAPS): A Food Production Solution for Sustainable Human Presence on Mars’ paper,” read Bader’s post. “MAPS … introduces a unique method of transforming Martian regolith into arable soil as well as the implementation of a smart irrigation system.”
Journey Byland, a UC Davis alumni and soils lead for MAPS, elaborated via email on the content of the technical report originally written to address the challenge of designing “a Martian Surface Greenhouse capable of providing enough calories and nutrition for a crew of four astronauts.”
While the popular solution was to integrate hydroponics, which according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture is a method of growing plants in a “soilless setting” by using a “nutrient solution root medium,” Byland said that their team chose to instead utilize the martian regolith, or soil, to plant the crops.
Lucas Brown, a fourth-year physics major at UC Davis and irrigation lead for MAPS, explained why the team made this decision.
“While employing hydroponics is the first and most obvious choice for designing a greenhouse on Mars, I think there’s a real benefit in the long term to exploring the use of martian regolith,” Brown said via email. “One such benefit being that it would allow for a direct utilization of resources present on Mars rather than relying on entirely synthetic systems that have to be brought along with each launch, another such benefit being that it could contribute to soil research that might benefit us here on Earth as we adapt to a changing climate.”
Byland explained how they were able to design this concept.
“[We] designed a system that would intake Martian regolith, rinse it in water to dissolve out the [toxic] perchlorate salts, and use an electron beam decontamination system to kill any bacteria,” Byland said.
As well as having a unique design, another factor that set the team apart was their interdisciplinary approach, as they drew from a wide variety of fields such as agriculture, structural engineering, thermodynamics and more.
“We pulled from a huge variety of resources when producing our design: professors with a variety of specialties, friends who grew plants indoors, fellow students majoring in engineering and one majoring in nutrition, online databases about Martian soil composition, textbooks, research articles, etc.,” said fourth-year aerospace science and engineering major Isabella Elliot via email. “I believe that collaboration and consultation are part of the foundation for productive research and design: science is not a solitary discipline, and working alone without input from other specialties can be detrimental to a project.”
Elliot offered one example of how collaboration played a part in their project.
“One person suggested having the LEDs in our greenhouse turn on and off in succession so as to mimic the movement of the sun across the sky on earth to help plants grow more evenly and produce a more uniform harvest, a concept that never would have crossed my mind but made absolute sense,” Elliot said. “Working with persons from other fields as an engineer is enormously enlightening, and 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 just so many different problems to solve and constraints to work with,” Brown said. “Not only did we have to think up ways to sustain a crew’s food supply for multiple years in a small and isolated environment, but we had to consider the many limitations on that design that come with launching 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 emphasized the importance of niche research and specialists, explaining that throughout the project their team both “consulted specialists in specific areas and delegated research responsibilities to different individuals on the team.”
“It helps to have a wide array of people working on that problem and communicating about it, all employing different areas of expertise,” Brown said. “I know personally I’m a huge advocate for breaking down barriers between disciplines for this very reason. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about these days is trying to increase open collaboration between the sciences and non-STEM disciplines like philosophy or sociology to ensure the scientific community continues to make progress and employ creativity while also being self-reflective about things like methodology and social responsibility.”
Both Elliot and Brown considered what they’ve learned since 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 repertoire for problem solving has expanded greatly 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 looking for answers when difficult questions come up.”
Brown talked about what perspective the past two years have given him as far as overlooked but essential aspects of space travel design.
“I […] would’ve spent some more time thinking about the role of our greenhouse’s interior design as being a psychological aid to the astronaut crew,” Brown said. “While this was definitely given some thought in our design, I am coming to increasingly realize that a Martian voyage is likely to be extremely taxing on a human level, and a lot of focus needs to be given to how living spaces like our greenhouse are designed to maximize crew comfort if such a mission is to be successful. We are really only beginning to understand the psychological effects of a human transition into long-term space travel ventures.”
Several members of the team also described where they are now, how the early years of their college experience got them to where they are today and what their plans are looking forward.
Byland graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in physics this June, and is starting graduate school this fall at the UC Davis Physics Department as a PhD student, currently studying experimental condensed matter physics.
Elliot, an English major upon starting college, solidified her interest in aerospace through working on the MAPS project and is currently working with a professor on hybrid electric aircraft power generation, hoping to work in the future toward designing sustainable air and space craft.
“It’s always nice to look back on that project,” Elliot said. “It was one of the most influential parts of my college career so far and I’m proud of the work my team and I produced.”
Jackson Liao, a fourth-year aerospace engineering major on the team who was always passionate about space exploration, similarly had his interests solidified through the experiences and the connections that the NASA BIG Idea Challenge offered him.
“Being able to be at the forefront of new ideas for the purpose of space exploration gave me an even deeper appreciation of the technicality, challenges, and creativeness that comes with developing new technology for space,” Liao said.
As for Brown, he came to the realization after the competition was over that he wanted to pursue physics rather than aerospace engineering; he found himself gravitating toward abstract problems, especially as they are related to space and the universe. He now aims to attend graduate school for physics in the future and has aspirations for research in one of several space-based fields.
“I think in part due to this project, I’m also increasingly interested in the intersection of physics and engineering with other disciplines from philosophy to sociology and politics,” Brown said. “When working on projects like this that require you to think about the future of technology and humanity’s presence in space, I think it’s important to really think big, making sure you’re questioning foundational assumptions along the way, so you can make sure that future you’re helping to shape is truly a better world for everyone in it. So these are all definitely ideas that I’ll be taking with me as I go forward in my career.”
Written by: Sonora Slater — firstname.lastname@example.org