Researchers say they have successfully grown and harvested their first crop of vegetables, without soil or sunlight, and in the future, it could help astronauts grow food on other planets.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”