Illinois freshmen Alex Darragh and Matt Steinlauf want to be the first engineering farmers to plant a seed and grow it on the moon.
Their experiment, a soda can-sized automated greenhouse called Regolith Revolution, was approved Friday by TeamIndus, an India-based space technology startup, as one of seven teams qualified to fly their experiments as part of a private-industry mission to land a rover on the lunar surface.
TeamIndus seeks to win the Google Lunar XPrize, which gives $20 million to the first privately funded organization to land a spacecraft on the moon, send a rover that can travel 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth.
“It’s amazing,” Steinlauf said in a Skype call from Barcelona, Spain, where he and Darragh were traveling over spring break. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
But there’s little time to revel in their success. The two, who met while living on the same residence hall floor, are in a race against time. They have to raise $750,000 in less than three weeks to pay for the experiment.
“We need to work fast to get them sponsors to make their dream come true,” said their adviser, Prasanta Kalita, a professor of agricultural engineering and an associate dean of academic services in the College of ACES. “They are going against all of these adverse conditions.”
Darragh, an 18-year old Bloomington, Illinois, resident studying agricultural and biological engineering, and Steinlauf, 19, a mechanical engineering student from Tokyo, have faced long odds before. Their experiment was created as part of Lab2Moon, a global challenge created by TeamIndus for youth that inspired entries from roughly 3,000 teams in 15 countries.
The two said they couldn’t have beat those odds without help from Kalita, who gave them laboratory space and connected them with a lab assistant and other professors at Illinois. “It’s nice to have the support of the university,” Darragh said. “The university and the professors have been excellent. A lot of teams in India didn’t have the support like we had.”
Darragh and Steinlauf said they are working with Engineering Career Services to help them contact potential donors, and the U. of I. is willing to provide on-campus resources to help in the construction of a space-ready greenhouse.
They have chosen to grow blue lupine, a type of bean that can take nitrogen from the air. That’s critical because regolith, or lunar soil, does not contain nitrogen. The idea is to introduce nitrogen and other fertilizers at various levels, and, based on the plant’s growth, determine which fertilizers will be the most effective in the future.
The whole experiment can’t weigh more than 250 grams, or roughly half a pound, Darragh said. The greenhouse has an Archimedes screw at the bottom that will fill a chamber inside the greenhouse with lunar soil. The regolith will then be heated and exposed to atmospheric gases like oxygen and nitrogen. The lunar soil then will be pushed into a central chamber where it will be mixed with fertilizer. The seed will be planted, watered and monitored by sensors and a camera.
Darragh said they’ve been testing blue lupine in regolith simulant, a form of crushed volcanic ash. “It grew extremely well,” he said. “It will be a good plant for this experiment.”
The students came up with the idea for a lunar greenhouse after learning about the contest from an engineering newsletter while on their way to play tennis last semester. After the game, they went back to their residence hall and submitted their plan that night, then shared it with Kalita.
They made a video and a diagram explaining their idea, and made the first cut to 25 teams. Fifteen of those teams traveled to Bangalore, India, where they were winnowed to the final seven by a team of three judges.
The state-run Indian Space Research Organization will launch the TeamIndus spacecraft on its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle from the Sriharikota spaceport in Andhra Pradesh in late December. The spacecraft will begin a 21-day journey to land in Mare Imbrium, a region in the moon’s northwestern hemisphere.
Kalita said Darragh and Steinlauf were motivated by the idea of feeding humanity in the future. “By 2050, we will have more than 9 billion people on Earth, and we won’t have enough food to feed the world,” he said. “So here are two students who come up with the idea of growing food on another planet or moon. The No. 1 challenge is feeding people. Here are youngsters who have never faced hunger wanting to do something. That’s a noble purpose.”
“Who knows? If they can do this, they may be Nobel laureates in the future,” Kalita said. “They’re totally dedicated. They have the background and the brilliance. I trust them.”
Supporters can follow the project on the Regolith Revolution Facebook page. A video, a text explanation and a diagram of the greenhouse may be found online.