From Mountaintop to Mars

It isn’t easy to cultivate a garden on Mars. With temperatures averaging -80 degrees Fahrenheit, harmful ultraviolet radiation, a thin atmosphere, and frequent dust storms and meteorite showers, Mars isn’t hospitable to plant life. But for a manned mission to Mars to occur, space travelers will need a sustainable food source.

Kevin Augustyn ’17, Aidan Din ’16 and Aaron Sandoval ’17 worked this past summer to design a greenhouse that can make that possible.

NASA has held contests to solve the problem of growing plant life on Mars but has not yet found a solution.

Augustyn approached faculty members Terry Hart and Natasha Vermaak (mechanical engineering and mechanics) and Spencer Quiel (structural, civil and environmental engineering) with a proposal for a Mountaintop project. Hart is a former astronaut.

Din and Sandoval joined Augustyn and set out to design a greenhouse prototype. They studied other design efforts and read up on materials that might withstand Mars’s hostile conditions while also allowing light to reach plants. Materials must also be lightweight, as it costs $10,000 per pound to ship items to the International Space Station and would cost far more to transport them to Mars.

The students explored the possibilities of an inflatable or rigid design and performed mechanical tests on their materials. The team has grown and is continuing its work this fall. Students might develop more detailed parameters for how a mission is carried out or delve into biology to plan for different plant environments.

“[This is] a low-risk opportunity, an incubator opportunity,” said Quiel. “Without [Mountaintop] there would be very few mechanisms to be able to do something like this.”—Kelly Hochbein