January 9, 2019

One year in the perpetual ice – EDEN ISS Antarctic gardener Paul Zabel returns

  • A rich harvest after one year, with 117 kilograms of lettuce, 67 kilograms of cucumbers and 46 kilograms of tomatoes
  • Paul Zabel spent Christmas and New Year's day at home in the Spreewald
  • The greenhouse project is continuing with a new AWI overwintering crew and remote operation from the DLR site in Bremen
  • Focus: Space, biosystems

Paul Zabel spent some 365 days in Antarctica – 257 of them isolated from the outside world – relying only on himself and his comrades in the overwintering crew. The Antarctic gardener, who works at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), has tested the cultivation of vegetables for missions to the Moon and Mars in the EDEN ISS greenhouse, and has succeeded in growing paprikas, tomatoes, cucumbers and different varieties of lettuce and herbs under artificial light. The 10-member overwintering crew at the Neumayer Station III, which is operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), were thus able to enjoy more fresh produce and variety as part of their diet while they endured the weeks-long polar night. Paul Zabel is now back in Germany and has given a press conference at the DLR site in Bremen – the first since his return. He spoke about his efforts and the deprivations of recent months, the joys of growing plants in extreme conditions and his life on the seventh continent.

"Antarctica is a fascinating place. I am happy to be one of the few people to have the opportunity to spend winter in Antarctica. Over the last 12 months I have seen many unique things and faced numerous challenges. It is great to be back home and see my family, friends and colleagues again," says Zabel.

After a stopover at the Novo Airbase in Antarctica and a short stay in Cape Town, Zabel returned to his home in the Spreewald area of Brandenburg, Germany, shortly before Christmas. "Having spent Christmas 2017 in Antarctica, it was very special to celebrate Christmas and the New Year back at home." Zabel and three other members of the EDEN ISS team departed for Antarctica on 16 December 2017. After a set-up phase of approximately two months, he and the nine other members of the overwintering crew from AWI remained at the German Neumayer III Antarctic station from 18 February 2018.

Going to work through the Antarctic cold

Paul Zabel made his way to work at the EDEN ISS greenhouse almost every day, approximately 400 metres from the station. Only during severe storms, which Zabel experienced many times during the Antarctic winter, was the greenhouse automatically monitored and operated from the control centre in Bremen. "From Bremen, we were in daily contact with Paul," reports EDEN ISS Project Manager Daniel Schubert from the DLR Institute of Space Systems. "Over these last months he has done a great job on the EDEN ISS project, which has proven very demanding. Future astronauts will owe him a debt of gratitude."

Other members of the AWI overwintering team also assisted Zabel with his work, helping to sow the plants and providing him with support when conducting his many experiments. "After over a year in Antarctica, we can look back on a successful overwinter season. The work in the greenhouse and the fresh vegetables greatly enriched our time at Neumayer Station III," says Station Manager Bernhard Gropp.

A rich harvest

A detailed evaluation of the studies on plant cultivation in Antarctica is currently under way. The extensive results, which include technical, botanical, microbiological and psychological analyses, are expected in May 2019. It is already clear that Zabel consistently brought in a bountiful harvest, supported by his fellow overwintering researchers from AWI. Over the past year, the Neumayer III crew has eaten 67 kilograms of cucumbers, 46 kilograms of tomatoes, 19 kilograms of kohlrabi, eight kilograms of radishes, 15 kilograms of herbs and 117 kilograms of lettuce as part of their meals.

Continuation of the project is open to researchers worldwide

Over the next two years, DLR will work together with AWI and other research partners to further develop the production processes in the EDEN ISS greenhouse, in order to arrive at an optimised greenhouse concept for future stations on the Moon and Mars. The continuation of the project is open to researchers from around the world. "We will soon hand the greenhouse over to a new overwintering team, who will carry on with the EDEN ISS project in Antarctica and look after the crops," says Schubert. "We will manage and control the greenhouse from Bremen." In mid-January 2019, Schubert and his team will travel to Antarctica again to maintain the EDEN ISS greenhouse and bring its technology up to date for the project's continuation phase.

EDEN ISS – food supply of the future

Global food production is one of the key societal challenges of the 21st century. A rising world population and simultaneous upheavals caused by climate change require new ways of cultivating crops that are usable even in regions with unfavourable climatic conditions. For deserts and areas with low temperatures, as well as missions to the Moon and Mars, a closed greenhouse makes it possible to produce crops independent of the weather, the Sun and the season, while enabling reduced water consumption, as well as the cessation of pesticide and insecticide usage. With the EDEN ISS project, such a greenhouse of the future is being subjected to long-term testing under the extreme conditions found in Antarctica.

The EDEN ISS project is being carried out in cooperation with the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) as part of the overwintering missions at the German Neumayer Station III in Antarctica. Numerous other international partners are cooperating in a research consortium under the leadership of DLR to ensure that the greenhouse in Antarctica remains functional: Wageningen University and Research (Netherlands), Airbus Defence and Space (Germany), LIQUIFER Systems Group (Austria), National Research Council (Italy), University of Guelph (Canada), EnginSoft (Italy), Thales Alenia Space Italia (Italy), AresCosmo (Italy), Heliospectra (Sweden), Limerick Institute of Technology (Ireland), Telespazio (Italy) and the University of Florida (USA). The project is financed with funds from the European research framework programme Horizon 2020 under project number 636501.

News about the project can be found on the EDEN ISS Facebook and Instagram channels, as well as through the #MadeInAntarctica hashtag on Twitter. Information about the project can be found on the EDEN ISS project page.

The project is currently running an EDEN ISS painting competition for children aged between six and 12. The closing date is 3 February 2019. Participating children will receive EDEN ISS lettuce seeds from the Antarctic.

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Falk Dambowsky

Head of Media Relations, Editor
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Corporate Communications
Linder Höhe, 51147 Cologne
Tel: +49 2203 601-3959

Daniel Schubert

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Space Systems
Robert-Hooke-Straße 7, 28359 Bremen

Paul Zabel

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Space Systems
Robert-Hooke-Straße, 28359 Bremen

Sebastian Grote

Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI)
Communications and Media Relations
Am Handelshafen 12, 27570 Bremerhaven