Heather Hava, an aerospace engineering student at the University of Colorado Boulder, wants to make sure we have a way to grow food when we get there. The NASA fellow invented two robots that can grow fruits and vegetables and monitor human health in space.
She won the $15,000 “Eat it!” Lemelson-MIT undergraduate prize, an award for the nation’s top two collegiate inventors in food technology, for her bots.
The first, called SPOT, can grow strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and leafy veggies, like kale and basil, inside a small chamber. It’s a hydroponic garden, which means the produce grows on a soil-less bed of water with nutrients.
Enriched water is automatically cycled through the system, where it drops onto the roots, allowing the plant to grow. The leftover water then deposits into a reservoir.
The astronauts replace the water and harvest the produce — crucial steps, according to Hava. When you’re trapped in a confined space for weeks at a time, interacting with the plants is therapeutic.
Fresh produce “is one of the biggest boosts of morale for astronauts,” she says. “Now they get to watch the strawberry grow, see the it develop, turn from pink to red. There’s a psychological benefit through those visual cues. And at the end, you get the prize.”
Sensors in the plant beds track water temperature, pH level, humidity, and every stage of the plant growing process. The bot connects to an AI app that monitors the data, which can be accessed by both astronauts and NASA employees.
In her work, Hava focuses on plant robotics that optimise astronaut health. Her robotic garden’s produce can serve as a fresh addition to prepackaged space food. Normally, astronauts eat freeze-dried or dehydrated foods in pouches, like shrimp cocktail, chicken, protein bars, and spaghetti and meatballs.
These foods give astronauts macro-nutrients, like protein and fats, but fresh strawberries and kale would give them vitamins and micro-nutrients.
NASA currently ships fresh produce, but with Hava’s SPOT, astronauts could grow it in their spaceships. She recalls speaking with an astronaut who described the delight of eating a piece of basil in space.
“When you’ve been in space and haven’t had anything fresh, even chomping on a plain lettuce leaf is amazing,” he told her.
Hava’s other bot, AgQ, tracks the health of plants and astronauts alike. It can alert astronauts if the plant’s water needs to be changed, the pH level is too low, or the plant is dying.
The app also connects to a special suit that monitors the astronauts’ nervous systems. The system is constantly learning from itself and can use existing data to make predictions about future stress triggers.
Hava plans to test her bots at the Mars Desert Research Station, a colony in Utah that simulates life on Mars. She is now developing the third Spot, which will be even more lightweight. She is looking to raise $150,000 to finance these bots and complete her PhD through her website.
Hava is also working with NASA to improve the prototype of a rover, called ROGR, that will act as SPOT’s robotic farmer. It’s remotely controlled by astronauts, who can make it move around the spacecraft and inspect SPOT’s plants via cameras to see if they’re ready to harvest.
Eventually, Hava hopes her systems could scale to support an entire space colony long-term.
“This is just the beginning,” she says.