Space | 09. March 2021 | posted by Jess Bunchek

EDEN ISS - Growing vegetables in the eternal ice: Coming to Antarctica

Credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek
Neumayer III Station in Antarctica

The EDEN ISS greenhouse, developed by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), has been in Antarctica since 2018. It was designed to conduct research into food production in deserts and cold regions, as well as exploring the possibility of growing fresh food in the hostile conditions of the Moon or Mars. Plant scientist Jess Bunchek from NASA's Kennedy Space Center is spending a year in the eternal ice as a DLR guest researcher. In this blog, she will report about her exciting research on Earth's coldest continent.

In a typical year, you can reach the Neumayer III Station in Antarctica by air, but as we all know, the last year has been anything but typical. With countries restricting travellers and flights being cancelled, the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), which runs Neumayer, came up with an alternative: go by ship. The icebreaker RV Polarstern (German for 'polar star') already travels annually from Germany to Neumayer to resupply the station, so adding a few passengers to this year's transit was a logical and COVID-safe solution for AWI.##markend##

Credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek
Icebreaker RV Polarstern

Our month-long voyage started with a storm in the English Channel and Bay of Biscay. The ship cut through 16-foot (5-metre) waves in spectacular fashion, although inside the ship, many of us greenhorns looked a bit, well, green. Fortunately we found ourselves in calmer seas with beautiful weather by the time we passed the Canary Islands, which gave us the chance to fully appreciate the purpose and privilege of our voyage. That we are still able to overwinter while the world has come to a halt at the hands of the pandemic has not been lost on us in the slightest.

Credit: AWI/Markus Baden
Bunchek observing the stormy waves and sea spray in the English Channel

The temperature quickly dropped as we approached the Antarctic Circle at 60°S, and soon we found ourselves in polar day where the sun does not set, as well as sea ice. The latter was no problem for Polarstern, which as an icebreaker is designed to navigate such an environment while yielding to the locals. In the Antarctic, orcas are the greatest predatorial threat to seals and penguins, so much so that they would rather stay on the ice as we pass by than risk diving into the water. On multiple occasions, the large ship had to navigate around unphased, sunbathing seals.

Credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek
Stormy weather gave way to calmer seas and vibrant skies

We awoke early one morning parked next to the Ekström Ice Shelf. Welcome to Antarctica! The next step was to unload Polarstern of passengers and cargo and move to Neumayer, still 12 miles (20 km) away. In the absence of buildings, trees or mountains, our landmarks were now the colossal icebergs in nearby Atka Bay.

Credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek
The shadow of RV Polarstern as the ship broke through sea ice

Navigating polar regions goes beyond the design of an icebreaker ship. In thick sea ice, helicopters are crucial for surveying the surrounding area and determining the best route for Polarstern. They can also quickly run temperature-critical and fragile supplies such as seeds for EDEN ISS from the ship to Neumayer while checking the long-term condition of the shelf ice.

Credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek
Unloading from Polarstern onto the shelf ice, with icebergs visible ahead in Atka Bay
Credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek
A helicopter taking off from the stern of Polarstern, docked next to the shelf ice

However, all other transit is done on the ice. Snowmobiles are the ideal option for shorter, lighter trips, while PistenBully plows are better for heavy-duty jobs like hauling, plowing or longer travel.

Credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek
The snowmobile fleet parked next to Polarstern during cargo unloading
Credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek
Large, tracked PistenBully plows levelling snow drifts around the station

Without further ado, I present AWI's 41st overwintering team. Our 10-person crew consists of mechanic and electrical technician support, a cook, an IT and radio specialist, a surgeon, and scientists in the areas of geophysics, atmospheric chemistry, meteorology, and an agronomist/astrobotanist (yours truly). Although my area of research focuses on supplying fresh crops to the crew while testing capabilities for space crop production, I would be remiss to not mention the role that marine & polar science play in climate change research.

Traveling the length of the Atlantic Ocean reinforced a seemingly obvious but noteworthy theme: our oceans and poles are humbling and marvellous. From the dark hues of icy, choppy waters to the velvet-smooth waves and warm, vibrant blue-greens near the Equator to the frozen shelf ice that the ten of us will call home for the next year, our Earth sure is a beautiful planet.

Now settled in at the station, we are busy preparing the EDEN ISS greenhouse for the upcoming season. There is plenty more to come, so stay tuned!

Credit: AWI/Tim Heitland
The 2021 overwintering team in front of Polarstern upon arrival in Antarctica. Back row L-R: mechanical engineer Florian Koch, chef Tanguy Doron, station leader and surgeon Peter Jonczyk, meteorologist Paul Ockenfuss, electrical technician Markus Baden, geophysicist Lorenz Marten. Front row L-R: atmospheric chemist Linda Ort, IT and radio specialist Theresa Thoma, geophysicist Timo Dornhoefer, agronomist/astrobotanist Jess Bunchek.

About the author

Jess Bunchek is a plant scientist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. At the beginning of 2021, she began her one-year residency at the Alfred Wegner Institute’s (AWI) Neumayer Station III as a guest researcher at the DLR Institute of Space Systems. As part of the 10-person overwinter crew, she works at DLR's EDEN ISS greenhouse, located 400 metres from the station. The aim of the greenhouse is to research vegetable cultivation using artificial light and without soil for application in future space missions to the Moon and Mars. to authorpage