The venture to cultivate plants in the Antarctic is gathering momentum: on 8 October 2017 the special EDEN ISS greenhouse container, packed safely away on a cargo ship, left the Port of Hamburg en route to the Ekström ice shelf in the Antarctic. The journey will last approximately 11 weeks. The EDEN ISS team is expected to receive the high-tech greenhouse at the German Neumayer Station III of the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) shortly before Christmas. In this project, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is collaborating with international partners to investigate the fully self-sufficient cultivation of vegetables to supply food in harsh climatic environments and for future manned missions to the Moon and Mars.
Rich harvest in the trial run
Cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, peppers, lettuce and herbs flourished in the 12-metre container greenhouse during the trial run from late June until August 2017. "The trial run at the DLR site in Bremen yielded a rich harvest," says Project Coordinator Daniel Schubert from the DLR Institute of Space Systems. "We are confident that everything will proceed smoothly in the harsh environment of the Antarctic as well."
In total, the researchers produced over 40 kilograms of fresh vegetables over the course of the test phase. What makes it so fascinating? There is no loss of water. The only water that leaves the self-sufficient greenhouse system is in the harvested fruits. The rest is recycled and reintroduced into the plants. Under special artificial light, in a temperature-controlled environment without soil and supplied with selected nutrient solutions, the plants can grow faster and more productively than in their natural environment.
The actual crop cultivation experiment in Antarctica will begin at the end of December 2017. DLR scientist Paul Zabel will move to the Antarctic, where he will live for one year at the Neumayer III research station and work at the EDEN ISS greenhouse. He will be part of the winter crew staffing the Neumayer III Antarctic station operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI). "Scientists live and working all year round in the research station, despite the harsh Antarctic. During the summer, there are up to 50 people at the station. In the winter, however, only nine people remain there: one cook, three engineers, one doctor and four scientists," says the long-time Station Manager Eberhard Kohlberg. This is the winter team that Zabel will join as the tenth member.
Team colleagues from the EDEN ISS project will help Zabel with the construction and commissioning of the greenhouse, before leaving him in charge of running the greenhouse and cultivating the crops. The harvest during the months of darkness will enrich the diet of the people at the Neumayer III station. At the same time, the project will imitate the supply scenario for a manned mission to Mars.
"The preparations for the winter sojourn are exciting and already account for much of my day's work," says Zabel. “It gives you an idea of just how painstaking the preparations for a space mission are, when every eventuality has to be considered and one must be prepared for everything." Zabel has already completed survival training in the Alps as a member of the Neumayer III winter team. He has also attended a number of seminars on the technical systems at the station and a one-week fire-fighting training course. And there is still a lot of preparatory work ahead before his departure in December.
Food production of the future
Global food production is among the key societal challenges of the 21st century. The world's rising population, coupled with the simultaneous upheaval associated with climate change, demand new methods to cultivate crops, even in climatically inhospitable regions. A closed greenhouse system will enable crop growth independent of the weather, Sun and season in deserts and low-temperature regions – as well as for future manned missions to the Moon and Mars – while also reducing water consumption and eliminating the need for pesticides and insecticides. The EDEN ISS project will put this model for a future greenhouse through its paces for one year during a long-term trial in the extreme conditions of the Antarctic. System assembly is planned for late December 2017 to February 2018. Research operations will follow and are scheduled to run through the Antarctic winter and until December 2018.
International cooperation in EDEN ISS
The EDEN ISS project will be conducted during an overwintering mission at the German Antarctic station Neumayer III, in collaboration with the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). A large number of other international partners are contributing to a research consortium under the auspices of DLR, ensuring that the greenhouse will work smoothly in the Antarctic: Wageningen University and Research (Netherlands), Airbus Defence and Space (Germany), LIQUIFER (Austria), the National Research Council (Italy), the University of Guelph (Canada), Enginsoft (Italy), Thales Alenia Space (Italy), Arescosmo (Italy), Heliospectra (Sweden), the Limerick Institute of Technology (Ireland) and Telespazio (Italy) all form part of the consortium of the EDEN ISS project. The project is financed with funds from the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation under project number 636501.