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A dinner fit for a Martian

Want to make a fresh salad on Mars? It’s not as out of this world as it sounds.

A team of Dartmouth College undergraduates have designed an award-winning greenhouse tailored to function on the rocky planet. Their work earned them the top award for this year’s NASA BIG Idea Challenge.

The Bundt cake-shaped structure, named DEMETER (after the Greek goddess of the harvest), is equipped to support eight food crops: kale, soy, sweet potato, potato, broccoli, strawberry, wheat, and chufa (a sedge that produces nut-like tubers). There is room for one extra crop of the astronauts’ choosing.

“That’s really important because, when you think about a mission to Mars, everyone thinks ‘OK, we will just send them packaged food,’ said Zoe Rivas, co-manager of the team. “But, over time, certain nutrients degrade in the packages. You have to make sure you are getting all the nutrients to keep the astronauts healthy.”

Greenhouses needed to complement the NASA-designed Mars Ice Home and feed four astronauts on a 600-day mission.

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DEMETER acts as a dual-functioning space, with a small running track around the perimeter and a room in the middle large enough for an astronaut to relax in. According to Rivas, it would take about 50 laps to run a full mile on the track. The students drew out the size of the loop in chalk on the pavement and ran it themselves to ensure it wouldn’t make the astronauts dizzy.

In the center of the system is a space for the computer, as well as tanks that will cycle nutrient-laden water throughout the crop trays. The inside diameter of the dome is about 36 feet, and the height of the space is about 10 feet high.

The NASA BIG Idea Challenge is a university design competition to assist the organization in its eventual mission to Mars. Each year, the competition has a different theme — past years’ groups have been tasked with creating solar power systems for the red planet or methods for in-space assembly of spacecraft. Five applicant teams are selected to attend the BIG Idea Forum at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia to present their projects.

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Each finalist team receives a $6,000 stipend to attend the forum, as well as a chance to apply for selective NASA summer internships. The exact designs of the winning systems will not necessarily be the ones on Mars, but they could heavily influence NASA’s final products for a Martian outpost.

Dartmouth’s team is made up of eight undergraduates who completed the project as part of their graduation requirement. They began their work in September, kicking off by conducting research on almost 100 plants to determine which would provide the most balanced set of nutrients and antioxidants.

Rivas explains that, hypothetically, robots might plant the first set of crops, so the plants are ready to eat by the time astronauts arrive. However, if the astronauts plant the seeds themselves, it will take around 70 days for the first harvestable plants (which will be kale and strawberries) to spring up.

Laura Ray, one of the team’s faculty advisers, was at the presentations in Virginia and said she believed Dartmouth’s design won because it was the most “complete” concept. They had thought about the capabilities of their design from takeoff to landing, she said.

“The completeness of it set it apart,” Ray said. “There were teams there with very conceptual designs that hadn’t thought about ‘How do you land this on Mars and deploy it?’”

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Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at ysabelle.kempe@globe.com.