Antarctica is no place for a tomato. But starting in January 2018, researchers at the German Antarctic research station, Neumayer III, will begin growing not only tomatoes but also lettuces, herbs, peppers, cucumbers, swiss chard, radishes and even strawberries inside a climate-controlled shipping container. Although other indoor gardens have existed in Antarctica, the EDEN ISS Mobile Test Facility will be the most advanced indoor farm on the continent — an experiment meant to push the limits of indoor agriculture, so that the technology can hold up for a long mission to Mars.
"Some of my colleagues like to say, 'It's no longer your grandmother's garden anymore,'" says Matthew Bamsey, a research associate at DLR, also known as the German Aerospace Center, and a member of the EDEN ISS team, a multipartner project focused on developing plant cultivation technologies for future use in space.
Out on the Ekström Ice Shelf in the Atlantic sector, the greenhouse will stand against Antarctica's frigid temperatures, the long dark winter and extremely low humidity. From the outside it's a simple structure, just two 20-foot (6-meter) shipping containers placed end to end. But inside, it's a high-tech oasis capable of producing 661 pounds (300 kilograms) of produce annually. To give you an idea of how much that is, in 2013, the average U.S. person consumed 272 pounds (123 kilograms) of fruits and vegetables.
Fine-tuning the operation for space is one of the main goals of the project.
"We don't want an astronaut working 16 hours a day in the greenhouse," he says.
The experiment will allow them to figure out just how much time is needed to tend the garden. Over the next year, they'll get closer to that answer.
The indoor garden is based on a soil-free growing system called aeroponics. The system, first invented in the 1920s but advanced by NASA in the 1990s, is extremely water-efficient, using 98 percent less water than soil-based gardens. Plants grow in trays on racks, with their roots suspended within a protected chamber that prevents light from entering. At regular intervals, the hanging roots are spritzed with a fine water and nutrient-rich mist. Any water not taken in by the roots is captured and recirculated.
Sensors monitor the nutrient levels and provide data to a computer that analyzes the mix and adjusts it according to the plants being grown and their stage of growth. Cameras monitor the plant's growth, while other sensors capture temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels, which are fed to a computer that keeps the ideal levels precisely tuned. Air filters keep the environment free of bacteria and fungus, while an ultraviolet light helps sterilize the air and kill any organism not caught in the filter. Because of the sterile environment, neither insecticides nor pesticides are required.
The plants grow beneath LED lights that illuminate the leaves in blue, red and white light, which when mixed together, bathe the room in pinkish-violet sci-fi glow, says Bamsey. The lights shine for 16 hours a day and then turn off for eight hours to simulate night.
As of this writing, the greenhouse, comprising two shipping containers, is making its way by ship to Cape Town, South Africa, where it will be transferred to another ship bound for Antarctica, and due to arrive on Dec. 24, 2017. Bamsey and several of his colleagues, including DLR scientist Paul Zabel, will be there to meet the shipment and oversee its transport by tracked vehicle approximately 12 miles (20 kilometers) across the ice shelf. Bamsey says the shipping containers will be placed end to end atop an 8.2-foot (2.5-meter) tall platform that will prevent the greenhouse from becoming buried in snow. One shipping container, named the Future Exploration Greenhouse, houses the plants and the other, the Service Section, contains the control systems that keep them alive.
All of the DLR scientists, including Bamsey, will return home after seven weeks, with the exception of Zabel, who will stay behind at Neumayer III, along with nine other researchers. There, Zabel will keep an eye on the greenhouse, which will sit about (1,312 feet) 400 meters away from the main station. Along with making sure all of the systems are running smoothly, he'll prune the plants, harvest them when they're ready and take samples that will be sent back to partner research labs. Having some interaction with the plants provides a psychological benefit, says Bamsey. And even though a fully autonomous system is possible, the engineers likely will not design one. Previous research has shown that for people stationed in remote areas like Antarctica, tending to plants, interacting with them and just observing them improves a person's state of mind.
Bamsey referred to a 2013 South Korean study, conducted after an indoor garden was installed at the King Sejong Station on Antarctica. It found that 83 percent of station crew members found the fresh produce to be "very helpful" or "somewhat helpful" to their mental health.
The psychological benefits of having greenery in Antarctica goes back to the 1902 Discovery Expedition of the continent, led by Robert Falcon Scott, where some of the crew members grew cress and mustard in the ship's ward under natural light, says Bamsey. In some of the crewmen's journal entries, they talk of the plants, the energy and time they took to care for them and the boost to morale they provided.
"Some of the crew members and explorers of that time talk about how this was the first green material they had eaten in two years," says Bamsey.
The greenhouse has funding until the end of 2018. Produce samples will be sent back to labs in Europe to test for their nutritional value and if all goes well, the researchers will be back again for another frigid growing season.