Enabling extended duration Martian exploration missions through providing a steady source of leafy green produce 

Box Farm Labs has completed a Phase I prototype system for an automated plant production machine. Designed with mobility and greenhouse-module dimensional restrictions in mind, the CERES by BXL functions either as a robotic retrofit for existing greenhouse growth racks or as a complete stand-alone system. Featuring an extensive robotic subsystem, CERES is equipped for automated  seeding, plant-health monitoring, and nursery to primary grow bed transfer, thereby automating the full growing process until harvest. Testing has demonstrated that CERES eliminated 8.5 to 10 daily hours of plant and greenhouse maintenance  to two hours per week performing routine system checkups and harvesting. 

Saving space, resources and time through automation and a novel Con-Ops

CERES utilizes a fully automatic recirculating hydroponic and nutrient dosing loop, with filtration and particle separation measures to mitigate waste management. A novel algae prevention approach disallows fungal buildup and contamination while eliminating water-mass loss to evaporation, thereby allowing the same water/nutrient to service the plants within for their entire grow cycle.  Direct nutrient delivery to the rootzone, paired with these anti-algae and evaporation measures lends significant resource savings; 32 plants can be grown from seeding to harvest with 35 gallons (132 litres) of water. Further refinement to the Concept of Operations has seen the introduction of a staggered seeding protocol, where robotic plant transfer between various placement configurations allows for a steady replenishment of freshly incubated plants. Rather than a single bulk harvest of 32 plants at once, CERES now can steadily supply leafy-green produce of 4, 6, and 8 per day depending on the crews dietary needs.







Photo courtesy of Travis Nelson


The University of North Dakota (UND) Space Studies Program is one of the few facilities funded by NASA (since 2015) to test the effects of extended duration extraterrestrial mission have on the human body. These tests are carried out in the Inflatable Lunar Mars Habitat (ILMH), led by Principal Investigator Dr. Pablo de Leon, for missions ranging from 14-30 days. The program plans to extend these missions to 45-60 days.


The ILMH system consists of the following modules: Living Quarters, Geology Lab, ExtraVehicular Activities, Exercise and Human Performance, and the Greenhouse. Dr. Pablo de Leon, Principal Investigator at the University of North Dakota directing research in their Inflatable Lunar Mars Habitat (ILMH), cited that with current manual configuration of their greenhouse employed on their last four missions,

 "the crew spent up to 60% of the working day tending to the greenhouse

 and this is a problem that the astronauts will have to face on long duration missions. Long duration missions will be plant based because they cannot take with them much animal protein," said De Leon. Due to the orbital arrangement of Mars in relation to Earth, efficient launches to and from the two planets are only possible every 26 months, meaning that astronauts could be out of physical contact with earth and plant based matter for over two years. Mars One estimates the cost of bringing the first four people to Mars is $6 billion. For every next manned mission including hardware and operations, Mars One estimates the costs at $4 billion. Projecting this expenditure across the 26 month long mission duration, every hour each astronaut spends on Mars costs $77,543. This means that every week it costs $775,430 just to provide fresh produce at this rate.


Installation of Box Farm units to automate this process is vital to the success of these missions, since scientists on these missions would have more of their precious time open to do valuable research. Dr. Pablo de Leon further validated how critical a system like Box Farm is to mission success, quoting "We need to consider an automated system for the greenhouse since it requires too much time to take care of” in a telecon interview with the Box Farm team [16 Oct. 2018].

On May 18th, the Box Farm Mission 7b crew consisting of Sean Agpaoa, Gabor Paczolay, James Thesken, and Preston Tran, entered the habitat for a fully isolated 6 day mission. The Mission 7b crewmen, the first to wholly consists of non-UND personnel, were the first to occupy all the bunks in the habitat. The Box Farm system that was transported over 4,000 miles and assembled was the first automated system installed in a Lunar/Martian analog habitat. This mission proved the viability of packing the system into a small enough payload for future aerospace missions due to its modular configuration.  


The crew unpacked and assembled the system in 16 hours. The following day was spent testing and fine tuning the system to UND ILMH Greenhouse's configuration and holding a media day for North Dakota's press.  

While testing the Box Farm system, the crew had daily tasks of habitat maintenance and routine psychological evaluations. The crew had to prepare their own meals, which were stocked prior to the start of the mission. Due to the closed nature of the mission, the crew had to be resourceful and only had access to tools and supplies in the habitat to solve unanticipated difficulties.

"My first look at Box Farm is that it is excellent work, very well designed and mechanically very sound, using state-of-the-art technology in some cases... it's impressive that this was all put together in less than a year," said De Leon.

"This is the future.

I'm not those people who believe that robot or humans. There will be a collaboration between robotic systems and human systems."

-Dr. Pablo De Leon, ILMH PI, Kennedy Space Center

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