A team of Greek university students has won an award from NASA for their design of an autonomous greenhouse to produce spinach on Mars. The concept is comprised of a solar powered system enclosed in a dome that nurtures and protects the leafy green vegetable as it grows.
The futuristic greenhouse system, conceptualised by an eight member student team from Athens Polytechnic University and the University of Athens, was awarded "Best Mission Concept" by NASA as part of U.S. space agency's "Space Apps" competition held earlier this year.
Team member Lydia Polyzou, a 23 year old engineering student, said winning was like a dream come true.
"We didn't expect it and it was a great joy, when you think about how many people took part, we really didn't expect this to happen, it was like a dream, it was amazing," she said.
The challenge was for participants to develop software, hardware, data visualization, and mobile or web applications that contribute to space exploration missions and help improve life on Earth.
Internally, a fully equipped aeroponic - or air garden - system has all of the resources, sensors, and electronic systems in place to stabilize the internal environment and help the spinach grow. Carbon dioxide produced within the dome and sunlight create the conditions necessary for photosynthesis. The system is solar powered and will have the ability to harvest the plants and oxygen produced during the growth process.
Polyzou says "Popeye on Mars" is designed to work autonomously.
"The most important thing about this greenhouse is that human intervention is not required. Our aim was for it to get to Mars, land on its own, and then begin to work by itself for a whole spinach plant life cycle, which is around 40 to 45 days," she said.
During the cold Martian nights, where temperatures can reach minus 73 degrees celsius, the plant will be covered by a protection capsule, and in the morning this shield will open to allow light to enter through Popeye's glass dome for photosynthesis to occur.
The oxygen produced by the spinach during photosynthesis will be stored in bottles for later use. At the end of the plant's life cycle, an automatic harvester running on a spiral track will cut the spinach. The only human task would be to remove the seeds from the mature plant and replant them in the greenhouse for the next batch of spinach.
Team member Vangelis Chliaras, a 21 year old physics student, says they chose Mars because for them, Mars is the next step for space travel.
"We see Mars as the next frontier for mankind. Man is constantly exploring and seeking to discover new worlds but if you think about the history of space travel, man has just walked on the moon once. We haven't gone any further. So we saw Mars as a new challenge for mankind, and it is wonderful to be able to work on something like this and present your ideas," said Chliaras.
But before the Martian frontier is conquered, the team faces more terrestrial problems - money.
Due to the impact of the Greek economic crisis, the team could not afford to make the trip to theUnited States to receive the award.
"From our universities it is very hard (to find funding) because now universities don't even have money to cover even basic needs, even operational costs. We are going to try, but we are not counting on it," said Chliaras.