Aloha, North Dakota

University of Hawaii students partner with UND Space Studies to test out-of-this-world  farm concept

A collaboration between the University of Hawaii and the University of North Dakota tested the potential of Box Farm technology to grow fresh produce for future space missions to the moon and Mars. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Future Mars and moon colonists probably won’t miss having fresh leafy green salads with their meals, thanks to a novel collaboration between the University of North Dakota and the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

Four senior mechanical engineering students from UH spent a week in Grand Forks, N.D., this month testing their automated Box Farm in the NASA-funded Inflatable Lunar/Mars Habitat (ILMH). The facility is operated by the UND Department of Space Studies in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. The UH team’s objective is to automate the process of growing and harvesting crops to supplement the diets of crews on missions to Mars and the moon.

“Because this system is a proof-of-concept prototype, we want to prove the individual tasks it can do,” said Preston Tran, the project’s team leader who graduated from UH in May. “Once it’s been proven, the system can be expanded to take care of hundreds or thousands of plants. When we can verify that it works in this habitat, then we’ll know for sure it’s possible.”

Currently, the UH team is focused on growing small, leafy green plants, such as lettuce, collard greens, win win choy and basil, but it’s also testing tomatoes, peppers and edible flowers. Tran expects that over time, a much wider variety of plants will be grown using Box Farm’s automated hydroponic system.

Over the past six years, Space Studies students at UND have conducted seven missions in the IMLH to assist NASA in simulating the conditions Mars and lunar colonists will face. One of the five modules in the habitat contains a lab for conducting experiments on growing plants to supplement the diet of space explorers. What’s been learned is that raising and tending to plants is expensive and can occupy up to 60 percent of a crew’s time.

Better food, more science

“The use of automated systems can reduce the time needed and let the crew do research and scientific work instead of food production,” said Pablo de León, director of UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory. “If we find that this is the way to go, then we’ll certainly incorporate it into future ILMH missions.”

Before the Box Farm, individual plants received daily checkups to determine if they were healthy, nutrient levels were optimal and temperature and humidity were in the desired range.

Members of the University of Hawaii team testing Box Farm technology at UND are, from the left, Sean Agpaoa, James Thesken, Gabor Paczolay (kneeling) and Preston Tran. Photo by Shawn Schill/UND Today.

“The way our system differs is that we have cameras located on the robot arm,” Tran explained. “They take a picture of every plant and do a color analysis. We use an algorithm to determine the health of the plant based on the ratios of green and red.”

Any plant showing signs of disease can quickly be removed by the robotic arm. “Because we’re using a closed-loop hydroponic system to save water, we don’t want to enable any bacteria infestations to rapidly spread,” Tran said.

Tran noted that transporting the Box Farm from Hawaii to North Dakota served as a demonstration of its portability – an important consideration in space travel where volume and weight are at a premium. In addition, he noted that UH students served as the project’s mission control center by monitoring plant health from 4,000 miles away.

“The way we designed it was to easily interface with the shelving system here at UND,” Tran said “We bought a shelving system in Hawaii that was very similar to the shelving dimensions here at UND. In terms of putting the systems on the shelves, it was very smooth integration all the way through.”

Box Farm applications abound

The results of the experiment impressed de León. “There’s probably no state more dissimilar to North Dakota than Hawaii,” he said. “We were able to put together a collaboration with these students who did an amazing job. Now we’re discussing possibilities of a future collaboration between the University of Hawaii and UND.”

According to de León, UND is working with Raymond Wheeler, a renowned plant physiologist and authority on astrobotany at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “He’s interested to see how this goes and how they can continue with this technology in the future,” he said.

Tran said Box Farm technology has applications on Earth, too, which is why some members of the team are looking into forming a company to commercialize it. The system could help assure that farm crops are being grown with optimal nutrients and in favorable environmental conditions. Tran envisions a day when Box Farm is a consumer product for home use.

Since 2013, UND Space Studies students have conducted seven missions in the Inflatable Mars/Lunar Habitat to assist NASA in studying space exploration. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

The collaboration between UND and UH demonstrates the importance of IMLH as a venue in which to conduct space exploration research.

“We are so far from any NASA center, and yet we’re able to do interesting research, which you can’t do any place but here,” de León said. “People from all over the country and internationally are interested in the different kinds of research we’re doing.”

Other student members of the UH team in North Dakota were Sean Agpaoa, robotic subsystems lead; Gabor Paczolay, static subsystems lead; and James Thesken, system integrator and control subsystems lead.  The senior design project team from UH included 12 mechanical engineering and one biology student. They were assisted by Trevor Sorensen, project manager at the Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory, and Kent Kobayashi, associate professor of tropical agriculture and soil sciences in the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.