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 is 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.

Mars City Gala Award 2020. Credit: Mars City Design

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.”

The model they employed is focused on soy production, with the possibility of introducing wheat production once further waves of settlers arrive. Combined with additional research into the fabrication of a regolith outer shell (more radiation shielding), Pothier and his colleagues believe the concept can be scaled up to accommodate 100 people. Another key feature, says Pothier, is the use of “noble bacterias”:

“Our model suggests the high importance of what we define as “noble bacterias”, as well as yeasts and mushrooms as food supplements, food diversity providers, taste diversity, and international cultural heritage. These bacteria, yeasts, and mushrooms enter in the production of soy sauce, cheese, tempeh, kombucha, vinegar, and 27 fermented foods like kimchi, Sauerkraut, etc… that represent an international culinary and cultural heritage. They also provide undeniable advantages in terms of digestion and assimilation of nutrients.”

A secondary tower connects to the main one, which consists of the Garage module at its base. This is where the rovers, construction materials, and extra supplies are stored, not to mention the machinery to raise the ground level around the colony (using local regolith). In front of the main tower (also at the base of the structure) is the Entrance module where the crew’s EVA suits are kept (as well as a cleaning unit to remove dust).

The Command module sits on top of this and provides vista-like views of the landscape and allows for communication with Earth. Next to the Command and Entrance modules is the Food Preparation module. This is where the food processing and packaging systems are located, which are kept separate from the Greenhouse to prevent cross-contamination.

Artist’s impression of four KRUSTY generators providing power to an outpost on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/STMD

There are two external Sleeping Modules on the ground level that have built-in hygiene quarters and beds for nine crewmembers each, plus one “sickbed.” There’s also Refinery Module that holds a methanol reaction chamber and combustion engine (which burns organic oil). The colony also relies on battery units and a nuclear reactor as a backup power source.

Located in the Motherboard, this reactor will take the form of a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG), a time-tested technology used to power missions like the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers. Similarly, it could rely on a Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY), a cutting-edge technology currently being developed by NASA for off-world use. As Akisheva told Universe Today via email:

“As we look into the future of Mars exploration and settlement, it is likely that Kilopower shall become the power back-up in our design. Especially, for the early settlement with a small number of people, Kilopower reactors seem like a reasonable choice. However, the concepts of the reactors are similar, and the fact that both types would have to be brought from the Earth reinforces the idea that either could be used.”

The entire structure is also topped by the Ascending module, which rests on three support legs to keep the Colony stable, but can also fly crewmembers to and from orbit (should the need arise). As a location, the team selected Arcadia Planitia northwest of Tharsis Montes mountain chain. This location provides access to subsurface water ice and good regolith, which is solid enough to support the structure but loose enough that it can be extracted.

In the Design Category, first place went to architectural engineer Mohamed Emad for his MarSpine design. Inspired by the robust Voronoi structure of the lilypad, Emad designed the MarsSpine as a closed-loop system that would rely on In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) to provide building materials, food, water, power, shelter, and recreation to its inhabitants.

The inspiration for the MarSpine design is clear when viewed from above, which looks just like the underside of a lilypad – i.e. a central spine that splits the structure into two sections with networks of ribs extending to the edge. For the MarSpine, this serves as a distribution point for the above-ground and subsurface parts of the structure, as well as the main corridor that provides access to the surface and different parts of the interior.

The structure itself would be 3D printed from local regolith and combined with prefabricated carbon nanotubes to ensure that it is solid and durable, but also flexible. The external envelope is then treated with fiberglass fabric – polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) – which reduces friction from airborne dust, provides additional UV protection, and ensures stable temperatures within. As Emad told Universe Today via email:

“On Mars, the real challenge is how to best utilize its resources to build a closed-loop system… In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) is the answer, with the utilization of Mars’ regolith, oxygen production out of the Martian atmosphere, power generation out of solar panels, and water extraction.

“[W]ith the inspiration of biomimicry, the lilypad iconic structure was the best [place to] start… as the network of ribs in a lilypad represent the closed-loop system of the Farm Structure In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) of Mars’ resources.”

Artist’s impression of the MarSpine concept, viewed from above. Credit: Mars City Design/Emad

In addition to harvesting local regolith to build the structure and producing oxygen gas directly from the atmosphere, the MarSpine also relies on a system of fiber optics and tracking Fresnel lenses to harness sunlight and deliver it to the agricultural areas inside. The foundation is also provided with shock absorbers to keep the structure stable in the event of a heavy Marsquake. But perhaps the biggest draw is the feature is the “Eye.”

Located at one end of the Spine, the Eye is specifically intended for servicing an all-important aspect of the crew’s well-being, which is their mental health! As Emad described it:

“No matter how well the crew is trained, behavioral issues due to isolation in one space over a long time are inevitable. The Eye is the astronaut’s recreational area, provided with a Virtual Reality platform, an area for the astronauts where they can spend their leisure time the same way they would on Earth, and to observe the Martian horizon in a lit, weather-tight glass enclosure to support their mental health and cognitive functioning during their mission.”

In keeping with the idea of living well and not just surviving, Emad designed the MarSpine to accommodate three types of self-sustaining agricultural systems. These consist of the “pads array,” where Earth seeds are grown in Martian soil; aquaponics, where plants are grown in water alongside different types of fish; and hydroponics, where plants are grown without the use of soil.

These three systems ensure that a variety of foods can be grown, which crews can then use to create a menu with a lot of different options. This is in keeping with another program hosted by Mars City Design, which is the annual Martian Feast Gala. As a location, Emad selected the Jezero Crater, which is the site of a preserved ancient river delta and where the Perseverance rover will land on Feb. 18th, 2021.

Third place in the Design Category went to Khaled AlLabban, a junior architect from Dubai (UAE), for his Barchan City design. The structure takes its name from the Barchan Dunes – one of Mars’ most well-known features – that are located in the lowland region of Acidalia Planitia. As with Barchans here on Earth, these Martian dunes are crescent-shaped and form in sandy regions frequented by high winds. As AlLabban describes it:

“The main focus of the city is planting. It provides various cultivation facilities, residential areas, workspaces, and the services required to maintain them. It is the next step towards a fully-functional, independent, and plant-centric community.”

Mimicking these same structures, AlLabban’s concept consists of many dune-shaped clusters that are linked together to form a city. Also inspired by how plants and trees adapt to extreme conditions here on Earth, the different clusters are arranged according to their height and the protection level they require. They follow the wind’s direction, mimic the local topography, and are able to blend in with the environment.

The overall design calls for three integrated components: the exostructure, the skin, and structural columns. The exostructure is cellular in appearance, defines the design of the facade, and helps distribute pressure on the structural columns. These columns are the main load-bearing structures of the city and are able to reach higher due to the lower gravity on Mars (~38% of what we experience on Earth).

The skin contains algae cultivation chambers that scrub CO2 from the atmosphere and the city’s air and process it with wastewater and biomass to create oxygen, drinking water, and fertilizers. The food systems are closed-loop and bioregenerative in nature, relying on a combination of vertical aeroponics farms and eventual soil farming.

At one end, bioreactors convert CO2, human waste, biomass, and greywater into nutrients to fertilize plants. These, in turn, produce the food and oxygen to sustain the colonists, plus additional biomass for the bioreactors. Over time, the structure can be expanded to include additional complexes, allowing for more activities. For his inspired concept, AlLabban also snagged the coveted Favorite Winner award for this year’s competition.

And in the Marchitecture Category, first place went to Guiseppe Calabrese of Australia and Italy, for his Sprout design. The concept for Calabrese’s idea comes down to the stark realities that agriculture entails here on Earth, which is the destruction of the natural environment and the mass production of waste. In response, Calabrese proposes a system that will turn waste into a sustainable agricultural process and energy.

As with the MarSpine and other concepts, Calabrese selected the Jezero Crater (south of its famous delta) as the location for his city. At the core of it is the Green Power House, a concept invented by Michael Smith, president of REGENiTECH LLC) that mimics nature to provide for human needs. Using the iron- and magnesium-rich material from the delta, extracted basalt fibers, and bioplastics, robots will 3D print lego-like building blocks.

These will be arranged on top of a 3D printed foundation to create the hexagonal power house. Once operational, it will rely on three types of natural reactors to turn waste into resources and generate electricity. First, there are the photo bioreactors that convert “bio-waste” into energy and soil amendments. Second, there are the anaerobic bioreactors that convert algae biomass into methane, hydrogen, and organic fertilizer.

Last, there are the organic carbon engines, which convert biomass into biochar – which locks in carbon and produces soil when heated to 538 °C (1000 °F) in the absence of oxygen. From the central structure, the robots will lay the lego-like bricks to create shield walls for greenhouse cylinders and habitat modules – each of which will be capped with 3D printed Nubian vaults and silica glazing to allow for natural light.

Once the exterior walls and roofs are completed, the pressurized greenhouse cylinders will be opened inside and the robots will plant seeds to grow crops. Solar collectors with LED elements will be placed outside to gather the majority of light used to grow the plants. By the time the inhabitants arrive on Mars, these crops will be flourishing and ready to harvest.

At this point, the closed-loop nature of the colony will be established, with plants providing biomass for the powerhouse and the powerhouse supplying biochar, fertilizers, and soil amendments. The inhabitants will then oversee the expansion city, adding more greenhouses, a seed vault, and an insect-growing area (for added protein). The system produces zero waste and can operate in any environment, be it on Mars or Earth.

Artist’s impression of robots assembling the Sprout concept using lego-like bricks. Credit: Mars City Design/Giuseppe Calabrese

Solving for Earth

As the saying goes, “solving for space solves for Earth.” In that respect, this year’s theme was one that has the potential to solve one of the most pressing crises here on Earth. Whether we are planning on establishing a permanent human presence on another celestial body where resupply missions will be few and far between. Said Mulyani:

“Every year we have different focuses. This year happens to be the Urban Farming which includes: food production on Mars, designing the greenhouse that would work in the extreme environment. So this year’s highlight is that food is a topic that is very essential and it touches a lot of people, something that finally connects them with anything “Mars” in their daily lives.”

This is similar to the technological applications being sought by NASA and other space agencies as they prepare to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in over 50 years. As per Project Artemis, NASA intends to create a “program of sustainable lunar exploration,” which means leveraging ISRU and closed-loop systems to allow humans to thrive in a hostile lunar environment.

“The Challenge of utilizing planetary resources emphasizes the importance of valuable resources on Earth. Lessons to be learned are first to preserve our ‘Blue Marble,’ [make good use of] its renewable energy, reduce the negative environmental impact, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing techniques or recycled materials, ” added Emad.

Akisheva also explained how the concept she and her colleagues designed (Mars Colony 1) could have considerable applications for sustainable urban farming here on Earth. This, she points out, is particularly true when it comes to overpopulated and remote areas, harsh environments, and areas where space is limited:

“Urban farming in such areas should become appealing if people are to choose local products. As our design is soy-centered, it mainly appeals to cultures with high utilization of soy products. However, the farm can be tailored to other tastes. Furthermore, sustainable mass soy production should contribute to diminishing the devastating effects that the soy growing industry currently has on Earth.”

When addressing his concept, Calabrese emphasized that the lessons learned from Sprout and similar closed-loop systems will help us avoid repeating the same mistakes we’ve made here on Earth:

“Agriculture is the most destructive human activity on the planet. Planet Earth has only 60 years of farmable land left due to unsustainable agriculture and extreme weather conditions. Biodiversity is necessary, the [imbalance] calls for fertilizers and pesticides to combat super-weeds and super insects, health issues for consumers, [and] destruction.

“The combination of ISRU shielding structures, Green Power Houses, and Greenhouse cylinder systems are the solution. Together they will be able to absorb all the carbon in the terrestrial atmosphere to end global warming and accelerate soil generation from decades to days and turn waste into energy.”

This year’s competition inspired many other designs that earned their designers no shortage of recognition and accolades! These include the biologically-inspired Protists concept by Mohamad Montazeri and Elham Mirzapour of the Arena Design Studio (Tabriz, Iran), which secured second place in the Design category.

There’s also the Molecule Lab by Jasleen Gujral, a beautiful and unorthodox design also inspired by nature that won second place in the Marschitecture category (videos for both concepts are posted above). To learn more about the competitors and their winning designs, check out the 2020 MCD Hall of Fame!

To those who would argue that space exploration and establishing a human presence on other planets is a waste (i.e. “Shouldn’t We Fix the Earth First?”), competitions like this illustrate how we can do both at the same time. In fact, with all the advancements space exploration allows for – like closed-loop systems – one can easily make the case that going to space is a necessary component to solving Earth’s problems.

Between NASA’s plan for “sustainable lunar exploration” (Project Artemis), the many plans for building bases on the Moon, and long-term plans to send astronauts (and even colonists) to Mars and deep-space, the name of the game is sustainability. How do we ensure people can live, eat, breathe, drink, and do their business in space for prolonged periods of time without relying on resupply missions?

That’s a tall order, but applications arising from this challenge has always s led to innovations that have had all kinds of beneficial applications here on Earth. With the global population expected to reach 10 billion by mid-century, concurrent with climate change seriously weakening the very systems we depend on for our livelihood and survival, sustainability solutions will literally be the difference between life and death!

Disclaimer: Matt Williams is the Director of Media Communication for Mars City Design. The preceding article does not constitute an endorsement on behalf of Universe Today.

Further Reading: Mars City Design

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

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