A #spacefarming anthroponics experiment by six young girls in Groningen

Last year, a group of 6 talented girls aged 10 to 13 years old starting hacking AstroPlant as a contribution to the global FIRST LEGO LEAGUE ‘Into Orbit’ programme. So far they’ve built the kit, programmed and tested out the sensors, added a new water circulation system, and experimented with urine (their own) to see the effects on plant health (a discipline called ‘anthroponics’). It appears that nightly urine is more suitable for plants than morning urine. Right now they’re in contact with one of the biologist volunteers in the AstroPlant network to improve their setup and advance their knowledge about the topic.

Their mentor – Raymond Hendriks, from LEGO Innovation Education Studio Westerkwartier – wrote the report below.

Pretty Smart Plant Science

For about six months now a group of young girls form Groningen are working on a project featuring the Astroplant Kit. The girls are  in the science and robotics team “Pretty Smart POWER Girls” that participates in the FIRST LEGO League (FLL). Although they are only between 10 and 13 years old, for five of the six girls on the team this is already their 4th year of competition. Last season the girls won the BeNeLux Championship and participated in the FIRST World Festival in Detroit,MI.

Why work on Astroplant?

On the way back from Detroit the team was already brainstorming the new season’s theme. In FIRST LEGO League the teams need to build a robot that autonomously performs “missions”, but they also must present research on a global challenge. The project assignment for the INTO ORBIT season is to identify a physical or social problem faced by humans during long duration space exploration within our Sun’s solar system and propose a solution. The team looked at ESA’s website to learn about current challenges in space exploration and through the MeLISSA project pages the ended up at Astroplant. They immediately wanted to become Space Farmers…

Closed ecosystem

The problem the team wants to solve is how to create an artificial, closed ecosystem in a spaceship or planetary base. Plants are clearly needed for human survivability in space. They produce oxygen and are a food source, but they also dispose of human waste like CO2 and excrements. It didn’t take long take long for the team to decide that they wanted to study the use of human urine as a  plant fertilizer for edible plants, solving both a food problem and a waste problem at the same time. For their research they want to implement an anthroponics setup within the Astroplant kit.

Research targets

The girls have defined several targets for their project:

  • Research the use of human urine as fertiliser
  • Research urine in hydroponics (AKA anthroponics)
  • prototype and implement hardware additions/upgrades for the Astroplant kit
  • Develop some lessons for schoolchildren to learn about ecosystems and hydroponic growing systems

Upgrading the Astroplant Kit

Alongside the plant studies the team is working on upgrades of the Astroplant Kit. The standard kit is based on hydroponics and the girls wanted to limit maintenance on the water system, as they mostly meet only once a week. They did some reading on the internet and found quite a few hydroponics techniques that are relatively ease to build and automate. With the use of some aquarium pumps they built a continuous flow system that pumps nutrients from a reservoir to a hydroponics plant tray and back and by adding fresh air the water is also oxygenated. This results in less formation of algae and it helps preventing the nutrients salts to “block” the plant’s roots absorption.

Work in progress

The pump system is already active, but at the moment is is “always on”. Over the next weeks the girls want to add pump control to the RPi so we can create cron entries and thus be able to implement various hydroponics variants, starting with Thin Layer, Deep Water and Ebb-and-Flow. The team is also looking into continuous measurements using pH and conductivity sensors. More on the project and research will follow soon!

The Pretty Smart POWER Girls:

Anne-Maaike Hendriks (11); Bree Kroeze (12); Hiske Sterkenburg (13); Marte Volbeda (10); Sara Withaar (12); Susanne Meijer (13)


3 months ago

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