Skip to main content

MIT student designs gardening robots that could grow produce for astronauts on Mars

A NASA fellow and aerospace engineering student at the University of Colorado has invented a robot and artificial intelligence system that’s may open new avenues for space exploration and habitation. Heather Hava won the $15,000 “Eat it!” Lemelson-MIT undergraduate prize for her robotic gardeners, and now she hopes to raise $150,000 to fund further development of the product through her company Autoponics.

One of Hava’s inventions is a smart pot called SPOT: a soilless, hydroponic pod capable of growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables — everything from strawberries to tomatoes and leafy greens. The nutrient-rich water filters into a reservoir, and the system is designed to monitor the garden as it grows so astronauts can focus on other tasks. Sensors track each plant’s vital signs and resources, gauging water temperature, pH level, and humidity within the pods. 

An AI application called AgQ analyzes and reports that data back to astronauts. The system can detect if a plant is dying or low on water and immediately send an alert to the plant’s caretakers. It can even monitor the astronauts themselves by connecting to a suit that analyzes their nervous systems.

A remote controlled rover named “ROGR” is a collaboration between Havas and NASA. ROGR is just a prototype at this point, but may one day roll around the garden, inspecting plants and relaying video back to astronauts. 

Related: Researchers use fungi to develop space drugs on International Space Station

Astronauts will still need to replace water and harvest their own crops though. Hava insists this hands-on element is important – a form of therapy for astronauts far from Earth, confined to cramped quarters in desolate space. “They get to watch the strawberry grow, see it develop, turn from pink to red,” she told Business Insider. “There’s a psychological benefit through those visual cues. And at the end, you get a prize.” That prize is, of course, produce.

Space fodder tends to be freeze-dried or dehydrated; meals that leave many astronauts craving something fresh — but unfortunately NASA doesn’t pack and ship fresh produce into space. But with systems like SPOT, AgQ, and ROGR, astronauts might soon be able to grow their own gardens in environments as harsh as Mars. 

Editors' Recommendations

Dyllan Furness
Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer from Florida. He covers strange science and emerging tech for Digital Trends, focusing…
NASA challenges kids to design a moon-digging robot
NASA poster for its lunabotics contest.

NASA is challenging students in the U.S. to design a moon-digging robot.

The Lunabotics Junior Contest comes as the space agency edges toward the launch of its first Artemis mission that will fly a spacecraft around the moon ahead of a crewed landing in the next few years.

Read more
Curiosity investigates how rocks on Mars could preserve signs of life
A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity rover taken on Sol 2082 (June 15, 2018). A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover's location in Gale Crater.

A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity rover taken on Sol 2082 (June 15, 2018). A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover's location in Gale Crater. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Trying to find evidence of life on Mars isn't a simple matter. If there ever was life on Mars, it was likely microbial and lived millions of years ago. That means that to find evidence of its existence, rovers like Perseverance and Curiosity have to look for clues hidden in rock samples.

Read more
NASA wants to send a robotic mission to search for ice on Mars
nasa mission ice mars international mapper artist concept2 1

This artist illustration depicts four orbiters as part of the International Mars Ice Mapper (I-MIM) mission concept. Low and to the left, an orbiter passes above the Martian surface, detecting buried water ice through a radar instrument and large reflector antenna. Circling Mars at a higher altitude are three telecommunications orbiters with one shown relaying data back to Earth.  NASA

If we ever want to send humans to Mars, we'll need to find resources there which can help sustain a mission. One of the most essential resources for crewed missions is water, and now international space agencies want to find a way to locate it on the red planet.

Read more