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Dartmouth's Mars Greenhouse Wins 2019 NASA BIG Idea Challenge

Apr 25, 2019   |   by David Hirsch

This is the first time that Dartmouth students have entered—and won—the national competition

Courtesy of NASA

A team of Dartmouth engineering students has been named winners of the 2019 NASA BIG Idea Challenge for its innovative design for a Mars greenhouse that can grow food and sustain a crew of astronauts on a future mission to the red planet.

The team, made up of undergraduates at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, pitched their winning proposal to top scientists at NASA and National Institute of Aerospace at NASA’s Langley Research Center this week in Hampton, Virginia, where they competed against four other top university-team finalists for the top honor.

“The BIG Idea Challenge has been an amazing experience and I’m thrilled that we won,” said Zoe Rivas ’18, co-manager of the Dartmouth team. “I’m so excited to see what happens next with our greenhouse design and what NASA will do with all of the great ideas we saw in this competition.”

This is the first time that a Dartmouth team has entered – and won – NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, a national engineering competition that elicits solutions from some of the best and brightest students for some of NASA’s pressing, real-time space exploration challenges.

The team’s greenhouse design, initially conceived as the students’ senior capstone project, won for its innovation in food production and crop cultivation, as well as mechanical and aerospace engineering elements of the design.

“I can’t begin to explain how exciting this is,” said Alexa Escalona ’18, the team’s co-manager. “This validates all of the late nights and hard work.”

In addition to Rivas and Escalona, the team members included BE candidates David Dick, Grace Genszler, Thomas Hodsden ’18, Peter Mahoney ’19, Morgan McGonagle ’18, and Christopher Yu ’19. Interim Dean of Engineering Laura Ray, Professors Benoit Cushman-Roisin, John Collier and Lee Lynd served as faculty advisors for the project.

Named DEMETER after the ancient Greek goddess of harvest, growth and nourishment, the greenhouse has the capacity to grow a selection of fruits and vegetables in a rotating, nutrient-filled, hydroponic system that provides enough nourishment for a four-person crew on a 600-day surface mission to Mars. The design also includes a circular running track around the trays to offer a recreational outlet.

In addition to demonstrating DEMETER’s ability to grow food in the hostile Mars environment, students also proved it could be transported millions of miles from Earth, deployed with minimal human intervention, then sustained with limited technology and resources. The entire system was enclosed within an inflatable membrane with radiation shielding.

“I am thrilled with the outcome,” said Ray, who accompanied the students to Langley. “The NASA challenge demanded a systems-thinking approach, and that’s precisely what a Thayer education provides. The team was methodical and dedicated and they ended up winning the day against fantastic competition.”

NASA’s 2019 Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge searched across the country for innovative ideas for the design, installation and sustainable operation of a habitat-sized Mars greenhouse. The BIG Idea Challenge was created to support NASA’s Game Changing Development program to rapidly bring to fruition high-impact technologies. The challenge, organized jointly by NASA and NIA, was open to teams of undergraduate and graduate students studying in fields applicable to human space exploration.

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