Winning Urban Farming Ideas For Mars!

If humans plan to go to live and work beyond Earth someday, they will need technologies that allow for sustainable living in alien environments. This is especially true of Mars, which is extremely cold, dry, and subject to more radiation than we are used to. On top of that, it also takes six to nine months to send spacecraft there, and that’s every two years when Earth and Mars are closest to each other in their orbits.

As such, settling on the Red Planet will require some serious creativity!

This the purpose of Mars City Design (the Mars City®), an innovation and design platform founded by architect and filmmaker Vera Mulyani. Every year since its inception, this organization has hosted the Mars City Design Challenges, where students from around the world come together with industry experts to produce architectural designs for living on Mars (what Mulyani calls “Marchitecture”).

As we covered in a previous article, the focus of the 2020 challenges was Urban Farming. For this competition, participants were tasked with creating architectural innovations and ideas that would ensure food security on Mars. But in keeping with the focus of Mars City Design, participants needed to look beyond the basics and come up with innovative ideas that would allow future Martians to thrive.

Beyond Survival

To thrive and not just survive is central to the Mars City mission. As Vera Mulyani explained to Universe Today via email:

“Thriving on Mars” means to live beyond survival mode. This means we better prepare our destinations’ infrastructure, plan it well based on how humans can live sustainably for a long term settlement (not just temporary solutions) before we even send humans there.

Thriving means also advancing together in the context of innovating. Achieving Mars alone may be possible for some people considered ‘superhuman,’  but what is the fun in making the effort all alone? The real challenges lay in the process of achieving it, together.”

Together is the keyword, according to Mulyani. Various luminaries and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and others have expressed interest in establishing a colony on Mars and have the resources to lead such an effort. But establishing a permanent human presence on Mars that is open and inclusive requires a much more collaborative effort.

What’s more, collaboration is essential to creating the kind of innovative solutions that will allow human beings to live on Mars comfortably and productively. It’s well-known that any human presence there will be heavily dependent on artificial systems that have to mimic natural processes. But in the end, the payoff for this innovation extends beyond applications for Mars and other celestial bodies.

Winning Designs

As with previous challenges, this year’s winning submissions (ten in total) were broken down into multiple categories. These included Mars Agriculture Engineering, for which four winning submissions were selected. These included Justin’s Mars Farm, a concept submitted by Justin Pourkaveh – a thermal systems fluid engineer in commercial aerospace.

Pourkaveh’s concept is essentially a food production system made up of interconnected modules. Each module provides 290 m2 (~3120 ft2) of growing space, providing a total of 1,450 m2 (~15,600 ft2) of arable land with which to grow food. Each module is windowed and designed to regulate solar input, thermal conditions, humidity, and other crucial factors.

The concept leverages advances made indoor farming (or urban farming), a practice that is becoming increasingly common here on Earth and has been traditionally used to grow food in inhospitable climes. Adapted for living on Mars, this system allows each Farm unit to grow enough food to feed nine people. According to Pourkavah, this will be the size of an initial crew that lands on Mars.

The Mars Farm will therefore support the first inhabitants as they perform the hard work of establishing the infrastructure to accommodate a larger human presence. In this respect, a single Mars Farm unit can sustain a single habitat, with more units being added as more people arrive. It could also allow for self-sufficiency for remotely-located communities or research stations on Mars (and also here on Earth!)

Second place went to an international team behind their Mars Colony 1 design. This team was put together by the Mars City Ambassador Thomas Lagarde and included postdoc aerospace engineer and Martian environment specialist Yulia Akisheva, “Marschitect” Stefan Aleksa Durdevic, Nenadic Nenad, and Explorers Club International Fellow, analog astronaut, and Human Factors Expert Benjamin Pothier.

The design of the Colony consists of a main tower that is made up of multiple interconnected modules. At the base is the “Motherboard,” from which has three points of connection that allow for access to other sections of the colony and to the surface. The Shelter module is also located here and can provide emergency protection for the crew in the event of solar flares.

The Greenhouse module sits directly above the Motherboard. This is the heart of the Colony and consists of three vertical sections: the top section, where edible plants are grown; the middle section, where the bioreactor is located that provides the plants with nutrients; and the lower section, where the herb garden is. As Ben Pothier described it to Universe Today via email:

“Our project provides an innovative perspective both in terms of crop selection and concept operations with a number of possible applications on Earth. It also increases the potential safety of the crew, with both the radiation shelter and the ascent module.”

“Our ‘No wheat’ concept sounds more realistic for a first wave of settlement. It would provide enough food diversity to fulfill nutritional and psychological needs, while leaving enough time for the astronauts to work on other aspects of the mission.”