Heading into space for long journeys and potentially colonizing other planets requires energy — and we don't mean rocket fuel. Growing crops in space or on other planets means dealing with difficult conditions, including a lack of sunlight and access to hospitable soil. What better place to test these methods than Antarctica?
To that end, a group of German researchers based at Neumayer Station III in Antarctica have successfully harvested their first batch of fresh vegetables from a building that looks more like a shipping crate than a greenhouse.
"We have learned a lot about self-sufficient plant breeding in the last few weeks, it has become clear that Antarctica is an ideal test field for our research," project manager Daniel Schubert told dw.com.
An Antarctic EDEN
The EDEN-ISS greenhouse is expected to provided fresh food for Neumayer Station III every week by May ... if the snowman doesn't eat all the food first. (Photo: DLR/flickr)
EDEN-ISS, the name of the Neumayer Station III's greenhouse, does indeed look like a shipping container, albeit one loaded with technology to test the best ways to cultivate plants in space. The facility arrived in Antarctica on Jan. 3, and was operational by early February. Researchers began sowing crops — all without soil, pesticides or sunlight, relying instead on principles of hydroponics.
This process includes reusable water cycle and nutrient systems using melted, filtered and purified ice from around the station; LED lighting calibrated just so for each plant; and a carbon dioxide system that encourages growth. Humans entering the greenhouse are required to go through an air lock and UV sterilization, and air filters keep the air in the greenhouse plant-friendly.
Plants grow inside the EDEN-ISS greenhouse thanks to the principles of hydroponics. (Photo: DLR/flickr)
Like in space — or, really, any garden — things went a little awry while the plants were growing.
"After sowing the seeds in mid-February, I had to deal with some unexpected problems, such as minor system failures and the strongest storm in more than a year," engineer Paul Zabel told dw.com. "Fortunately, all these things could be fixed and overcome."
Zabel spends about three to hours a day tending to the vegetables.
The hard work as worth it, however. After three weeks, Zabel harvested 7.9 pounds (3.6 kilograms) of lettuce, 70 radishes and 18 cucumbers.
A peppery radish in Antarctica is a surprising taste of home. (Photo: DLR/flickr)
Other items successfully grown in the garden include tomatoes, peppers and plenty of herbs. The researchers are, however, still waiting on strawberries.
"You have to be patient when growing strawberries," Schubert said. "Here we are still waiting for successful sowing."
Produced harvested from EDEN-ISS ready to be made into a delicious salad. (Photo: DLR/flickr)
While these aren't the first vegetables grown in Antarctica — McMurdo Station has been growing fresh vegetables for a while — they were still a welcome sight to the 10 researchers working at Neumayer Station III. Their supply of fresh veggies from late February had long-since been consumed. Now that EDEN-ISS is producing vegetables, it's hoped that the garden will yield around 9 to 11 pounds (4 to 5 kilograms) of produce a week.
"It was something special to see the first fresh salad from Antarctica," station manager Bernhard Gropp told dw.com. "It tasted as if we had harvested it fresh from the garden."