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.
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.
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