In my opinion, there is nothing more exciting happening in science and technology right now than the journey to Mars. Experts at NASA and beyond are working on finding solutions to every possible challenge that humans will face both traveling to and surviving on the red planet.
One of the many issues is how to grow food. A PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder is one of the winners of the Lemelson-MIT Prize for her invention that tackles that issue.
Heather Hava has developed three pieces of technology that would help provide fresh produce for astronauts. The first is called SmartPot (SPOT) and it's a smart growth chamber that semi-autonomously grows food. The compact chamber would serve as a microclimate for a particular plant, with temperature, humidity, lighting and ventilation all perfectly programmed. The bottom of the chamber is a water reservoir containing water and all of the nutrients needed for the plant. The water is pumped into the chamber where it drips onto the plants roots and eventually trickles back down to the reservoir.
The chamber has a screen where the plant's health data is displayed and that information is also sent back to an Earth-based team that can remotely make adjustments to the chamber. The SPOTs can send messages when they need care like more water in the reservoir. Those alerts are sent via a smartphone app to the astronauts and the remote crew. The small size of the chambers means that several of them containing various crops could be used onboard a spacecraft and in a space habitat on another planet.
Another piece of Hava's invention is a software system called AgQ. This platform analyzes data from the SPOT sensors and from physiological sensors placed on the astronauts to monitor, predict and send alerts about health issues concerning the crops and the humans working with them. The system helps the teams in space and on Earth correct any problems with suggestions for how to maximize crop yield or prevent health issues in the astronauts.
The last part of the inventions is a robotic gardener that could care for the plants in the SPOT chambers. Hava developed a prototype with NASA's X-Hab team for a Remotely Operated Gardening Rover (ROGR) that could be remotely controlled to move around the spacecraft or habitat to monitor and harvest the plants. ROGR has cameras that allow the remote operators to inspect the crops to see if they're ready for picking. If so, the ROGR's arm can be used to harvest the food and move it to a food prep area.
This trio of inventions won Hava $15,000. She will soon test the technology at one of the Earth-based Mars research habitats like Antarctica or the Mars Desert Research Station where people carry out similar tasks with the same restrictions that they would have on Mars. She and her research team are particularly interested to see how the SPOT plants affect nutrition, stress levels, cognitive performance and the general well-being of the caretakers.