A team of University of Colorado graduate students are developing a food gardening system for deep space and potential Martian colonies. The project is an entry in NASA’s eXploration HABitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge, and is called “Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces.” The project is based on two key components: SmartPots, or SPOTS, for growing plants, and a Remotely Operated Gardening Rover, or ROGR, which travels around the extraterrestrial habitat tending to them.
The system works like this: the SPOTS provide food plants with a small, custom-designed, individual hydroponic growth chamber. This is fitted with computerized sensors and systems to monitor each plant’s progress. The idea is to have dozens of SPOTS dotted throughout a space habitat. Each SPOT can be adjusted for light, temperature, pH and humidity to suit the plant as it grows, and water is recycled through the unit. The feedback from the SPOTS is relayed to ROGR, who will come and tend to a plant’s needs as required. ROGR is a robot on wheels with a mini forklift on front, so it can move SPOTS if necessary too.
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While the costs and risks of astronauts growing their own food on Mars versus having it shipped from Earth have recently been debated, the team notes that having access to plants onboard a mission or within a colony has definite and reported psychological benefits. Should a team be required to leave their green charges for a few days — such as by undertaking an exploratory mission on the Martian surface, for example — the ROGR units can make sure the astronauts’ fresh food supply doesn’t perish in their absence. The system can be monitored remotely by either astronauts or mission control.
In a video interview with Motherboard, team member Heather Hava revealed the system is going to be tested in Antarctica over the Southern winter. The isolated environment endured by researchers who overwinter there is very similar to the conditions that Martian colonists would experience. The University of Colorado Boulder also is among five universities selected by NASA for the 2015 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge. The team’s project will focus on designing a Deployable Greenhouse for Food Production for deep-space missions. Other universities participating for the coming year are the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, University of South Alabama, University of Vermont and Oklahoma State University.
Photos by NASA/Bob Granath