Civil Engineering students, professor design sustainable food system for Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station

Daytona Beach Embry-Riddle Civil Engineering students with the aquaponics/hyrdoponics sustainable food system

By constructing a plant growing system that uses mineral nutrients and fish to create fertilizer, two Embry-Riddle engineering students may be one step closer to finding a sustainable food source for future Mars explorers.

Last month, Embry-Riddle Civil Engineering students Matthew Maccarrone and Connie Cuneo, along with Civil Engineering professor Dr. P.B. Merkle, delivered their aquaponic/hydroponic system to the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

Embry-Riddle Civil Engineering Students at the Mars Society Research StationLocated in the desolate San Rafael Swell of Southern Utah, The Mars Research Station operates as an analog outpost that simulates the conditions of Mars and is where engineers, scientists, doctors and students participate in mock missions every year.

Last year, a fire destroyed the greenhouse at MDRS that housed a hydroponic garden to grow produce such as lettuce, peas and herbs. Merkle, who is a member of the Mars Society and the principal investigator for the Greenhab project at MDRS, worked with the students to construct a new system out of spare parts left over from another aquaponics system.

My students took their classroom and lab experience and worked to create a food production system in a harsh environment simulating a Mars base,” Merkle said. “I am very proud that they represented ERAU so well. The crew at the MDRS were very enthusiastic and wanted to get involved immediately."

Creating a sustainable food source for a planet with below-freezing temperatures and little to no oxygen required the students to design a specialized growing system that could adapt to the harsh environment. The 450-gallon system is compact with plastic piping and two water heaters. The plants will grow in a dome that blocks out sunlight, similar to the conditions in Mars. During a trip to the station, Merkle, Maccarrone and Cuneo helped set up the system. They will be working with researchers over the next seven months to track the results.

Maccarrone called the trip “eye opening” because it gave him a better understanding of the isolation and conditions that one might experience in Mars. He said it gave him a glimpse into the future as NASA is in the process of developing capabilities to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. 

"It was a great experience,” Maccarrone said. “I am getting hands-on experience and project work on something that is possible in the future. Mars is not too far away from human exploration.”