Out-of-this-world experiment

Out-of-this-world experiment

CHAMPAIGN — Two University of Illinois freshman are taking agricultural engineering to new heights.


As one of eight teams chosen by an India-based space technology start-up to participate in the first private industry mission to the moon, Alex Darragh and Matthew Steinlauf may soon be the first to grow a plant on the lunar surface.

The Indian Space Research Organization will launch TeamIndus' private spacecraft to the moon, filled with eight experiments and equipment that can transmit high definition video and photos back to earth.

And after months of work developing a prototype for their moon farming project, Darragh and Steinlauf's experiment has earned a spot on Team Indus' rover.

The pair have built a miniature greenhouse, about the size of a soda can, called the Regolith Revolution, named after the type of soil found on the moon and Mars. The prototype is designed to be placed on the surface of the moon, and an elongated screw attached to the bottom of the greenhouse, called an Archimedean screw, will dig into the ground and bring dirt from the moon inside it. There, a seed will be planted in the moon soil and mixed with fertilizer. Darragh and Steinlauf plan to test three different types of fertilizer while it's up there, to determine which would grow a plant best in that environment.

The goal: find out what it takes to farm in space, one step toward humans' colonizing other planets, Darragh said.

"The motivation for us is that this is the first time a plant would be grown on another planet, which is a huge step toward us being an interplanetary species, and it's something people would get really excited about," he said. "In the future, if we wanted to do more, we could use these greenhouses on a larger scale for people who are living on the planet. To have a colony out there, you would need to be able to grow food."

The pair found out about the opportunity through a weekly UI mechanical engineering newsletter. Steinlauf — a mechanical engineering student who met Darragh, an agriculture and biological engineering major, in his residence hall — looked into the contest and talked it over with Darragh while they played a game of tennis.

"We were passing around ideas while playing and decided, 'Why not? Let's just submit something.' So three hours later, we finished up our submission and posted it," Steinlauf said, joking that the two didn't start working on their plans until the night it was due and stayed up "well into the night" to finish it.

"We were really focused and just knocked it out," Darragh said.

The two UI freshmen made it through several rounds of cuts in the competition and were one of 15 teams invited to an all-expense-paid trip to India last month to present their experiment to TeamIndus. The company ended up choosing eight teams, paying for two and inviting six more, unfunded, to include their lunar experiments on the rover that will be sent to the moon in December.

Other projects that will be included on TeamIndus' spacecraft are:

— An experiment that will look at reusing bacteria as radiation shielding in space and measuring photosynthesis from bacteria.

— Inflating a dome on the moon and trying to keep it inflated at a constant pressures, which is "something that could be good for a colony on another planet," Steinlauf said.

— Brewing beer on the moon. "That project is actually about how yeast would grow on the moon, but they did a good job of marketing that," Darragh said.

As one of the six unfunded groups invited to send their projects to space, Darragh and Steinlauf are still looking for someone or several businesses to donate the rest of the $750,000 they need to sponsor their trip. With a deadline of April 15, the two are starting to accept they may not get to send their project to the moon, but hope some last-minute funding will come through.

"Right now, it's just a money problem. It turns out, it's pretty expensive to send things into space," Steinlauf said, adding it's possible TeamIndus might allow for some post-deadline donations. Information about sponsoring the project can be found online at regolith revolution.com.

If they're able to secure the funding, the pair have a lot of work ahead of them, but they don't see that being an issue.

"I would be ecstatic. This is the kind of thing that people all around the world would get excited about, and that would be an indescribable feeling," Darragh said.

Even if the two don't get all the money they need to test out their mini-greenhouse in space, Steinlauf and Darragh are thankful for the experience they've gained so early in their academic career, but they "definitely" want to keep working on space-related projects in the future if they can.

"I'd love to keep working on this kind of thing," Darragh said.