A team of UC Davis students was one of five finalists in a NASA competition to design a greenhouse that could help feed an astronaut on Mars.
The students traveled to NASA's Langley Research center in Virginia on Tuesday to present their entry in the BIG Idea Challenge, organized by the National Institute of Aerospace in collaboration with NASA.
Their design had to complement the Mars Ice Home, a Mars habitat concept from NASA, and provide a means for effective food production for four astronauts over a two-year stay on the planet.
First-year aerospace engineering major Audrey Chamberlin said it also had to fit within parameters like max power load, weight and budget. One dilemma: whether to use Martian "dirt" or hydroponics.
The Davis team was the only finalist team to choose soil. They found hydroponics posed too great a risk. Chamberlin said that's because if astronauts had any sort of pump failure, the entire system will drain of water, whereas soil would retain moisture.
"And we looked at the psychological benefits that help with gardening — it's a very calming activity and it's very natural to something you would do on earth," she said.
Dartmouth College placed first in the contest and MIT placed second, NASA announced Wednesday. UC Davis said in a press release that unlike most of the other competitors, its team was made up entirely of undergraduates.
“We all had an amazing experience learning from other teams’ ideas and interacting with professional engineers as well as fellow students,” said team member Lucas Brown, a freshman in aerospace engineering, in the press release.