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NASA’s Journey to Mars includes pathways to learning

A habitation system designed by Ohio State College of Engineering students could make deep space living more healthy and efficient for astronauts on the Journey to Mars.

The project is part of NASA’s eXploration Systems and Habitation (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge series. The prototype from the College of Engineering team received nearly $20,000 in funding and was one of only eight in the country to receive a competitive grant.

Prof. Peter Ling (far right) with the 2016-2017 X-Hab team. From left: Joshua Abraham, Usoshi Chatterjee, Ryan Jeon, Brennan Cordova, Tayo Pedro, John Capuano, Owen Meehl and Jamie Heidel.

The concept—an improved passive water delivery system for space-based food production—was originally developed by a 2015-2016 X-Hab team of five students from the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering (FABE). Those efforts to improve food production in space are being carried on by a new crop of FABE undergraduates.

“Two teams of four students each are taking up the X-Hab challenge to further improve the passive water delivery system, and recycling inedible plant parts,” said FABE Associate Professor Peter Ling, who serves as co-advisor of the effort. Ling learned of the challenge through his professional contacts at NASA.

The team’s Water Assurance Delivery System is capable of interfacing with Orbital Technologies Corporation’s Vegetable Production System (Veggie) payload, which has previously grown plants on the space station. The team built prototypes with multiple materials and conducted several 30-day plant growth experiments. This project has influenced the design of the next generation of rooting pillows that will be used on future Veggie crops aboard the space station. 

According to Ling, time presents one of the biggest challenges for the students working on the project.

“This is just one of their courses—this is not their whole livelihood. Timing is short, as we only have about nine months to work on the project,” he said. “But on the positive side, there’s a lot of support from the various centers at NASA.”

The student team members agreed that the most difficult aspect of participating in X-Hab is also the most rewarding.

“When you ask these experts in the microgravity field if a concept would be feasible, a lot of times their answer is ‘I don’t know,’” said Brennan Cordova. “It’s cool that we’re on the cutting-edge, and it’s hard because even when we consult experts, we’re often given more questions. We get guided in the right direction, but it’s cool to be basically finding out everything for ourselves.”

The team has also enjoyed getting to work on a project that has practical applications.

“This is the first time that any of us are looking into a real-life situation and actually applying what we’ve been learning. Instead of using that toward homework or some other project in class, we’re using it toward something we could see well within our careers—research that will actually be implemented,” said Usoshi Chatterjee.

According to NASA, the X-Hab challenge has a proven track record of fostering innovative concepts to help solve deep space habitation challenges. Over the seven years of X-Hab challenges, NASA has been able to incorporate student concepts ranging from waste handling, recycling and atmosphere scrubbing, to advanced fabrication concepts and design factors that influence human psychological and physiological conditions.

As for living on Mars? Buckeye engineers say “why not?”

“I like how we’re kind of like pioneers trying to explore this unknown realm of science and it could possibly be a ticket to the future since people are trying to live on Mars,” said Ryan Jeon.

“Especially with all of the collaboration happening with other countries,” added Jamie Heidel. “There are so many resources available now, so it definitely seems like technology is advancing to the point where it is possible in our lifetime.”

X-Hab is sponsored by Advanced Exploration Systems (AES), a division in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. AES pioneers innovative approaches through academic, industry and international partnerships to rapidly develop prototype systems, advance key capabilities, and validate operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit. AES develops strategic partnerships and collaborations with universities to help bridge gaps and increase knowledge in architectural design trades, capabilities, and technology risk reduction related to AES activities.