CU-Boulder Design Could Eventually Support Life on Mars

CU Boulder X-Hab at Kennedy Space Center. This is one of the heritage projects that the 2015 team will draw on as they develop a deployable greenhouse.

CU Boulder X-Hab at Kennedy Space Center. This is one of the heritage projects that the team will draw on as they develop a deployable greenhouse for the 2015 X-Hab Challenge. Image Source: CU-Boulder

Boulder, Colorado. June 19, 2014 – A group of students and professors from the University of Colorado at Boulder are designing a greenhouse that could be used to grow food on the surface of the Moon or Mars. CU-Boulder is among five universities that have been selected by NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation for the 2015 Exploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge.

With the forward progress of NASA’s new Space Launch system and emphasis on deep space missions using Orion, the breadth of technology required to successfully complete such long duration flights is inadequate. For the fifth year, NASA has identified necessary technologies for deep space missions and invited universities from around the country to develop concepts and prototypes that will help shape future space missions.

“We consider these X-Hab project efforts to be prototypes for new ideas that may eventually be incorporated in NASA designs. In this sense, our efforts are the initial phase of what may end up being developed for long duration missions on the surface of the Moon or Mars,” said Jordan Holquist, a project advisor and Ph.D. student in bioastronautics at CU-Boulder.

Building the greenhouse is part of a larger team effort led by former NASA astronaut Joe Tanner, now a senior instructor of aerospace engineering sciences at the university. Tanner is no stranger to the challenges that are posed by space, after flying four shuttle missions for NASA between 1997 and 2006, and he freely shares that knowledge.

Among the many obstacles the team must overcome in designing the greenhouse is Mars’ low-gravity environment (only one-third that of Earth), extreme temperature variation between day and night, a very thin atmosphere and reduced energy from the sun. A successful greenhouse design will have to incorporate supplemental heat and light, a renewable source of power and a system to recycle water, among other requirements.

“This will be our third award from the X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge. Our previous projects have included a robotically tended gardening system and a distributed (throughout a habitat) plant care system, ” said Holquist. “However, the award we have just received for the 2014-2015 academic year poses new challenges. I expect that this project will build upon some exciting ideas we have to meet the needs of deploying a greenhouse on a planetary surface, but will also include functional elements, at greatly improved fidelity, from our heritage X-Hab projects here at CU-Boulder.”

The X-Hab Challenge is designed to engage and retain students in STEM disciplines. The senior and graduate level course offers students real-world experience as they design, manufacture, assemble and test designs that could be applied to future exploration habitats.

“We have students involved in this project that span the entirety of engineering disciplines – aerospace, mechanical, electrical, computer science, etc. While the project is advised by instructors, students lead and manage the project in addition to performing tasks related to all phases of design and development,” said Holquist. “Students give multiple presentations to our project counterparts at NASA, culminating in delivery of the final product.”

The NASA X-Hab Challenge was developed by the National Space Grant Foundation for the Habitation Systems Project team at Johnson and is part of the agency’s Advanced Exploration Systems Program. This challenge also contributes to the agency’s efforts to train and develop a highly skilled scientific, engineering and technical workforce for the future.

The selections are the first milestone in a yearlong design and development effort for these five projects. Throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, the teams must meet a series of milestones to design, manufacture, assemble and test their systems and concepts in close cooperation with members of the NASA Exploration Augmentation Module (EAM) concept team.

The X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge 2015 teams and projects are:

  • University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee: Design of a Carbon-fiber/Fused Deposition Modeling Spacecraft Structural Fabrication System
  • University of South Alabama: Development of a Volumetric Adsorption System for CO2 and H2O Multicomponent Isotherm Measurements
  • University of Vermont: Design of a “Smart-Structure” Deployable Airlock
  • Oklahoma State University: Deployable Greenhouse for food production on long-duration exploration missions
  • University of Colorado at Boulder: Deployable Greenhouse for Food Production