Last year the EDEN-ISS greenhouse container shipped off to the Ekström ice shelf in the Antarctic. Now, scientists 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.
At the Neumeyer-Station III, researchers say they have harvested 3.6 kilograms (8 pounds) of salad greens, 18 cucumbers, and 70 radishes. It's a welcome treat for researchers who often go months without fresh produce.
"It was special to have the first fresh salad of the Antarctic," said station manager Bernhard Gropp in a statement. "It tasted as if we had harvested it fresh in the garden."
Minor system failures and the strongest storm of the year proved challenging, but project lead Daniel Schubert says their harvest "shows that the Antarctic is an ideal test field for research."
These veggies were all grown without earth, daylight, or pesticides in a fully self-sufficient greenhouse container. With conditions outside dropping below -20°C (-4°F), the project aims to cultivate produce in harsh climates. Astronauts successfully grew greens on the International Space System, and the German Aerospace Center DLR, who coordinates the project, says the Antarctic project aims to grow a more diverse variety of food for future manned missions to the Moon and Mars.
Located at the Neumeyer-Station III, the greenhouse defies the Arctic winter with its state-of-the-art technology; pipes supply sufficient water, lamps provide the right light, and filters and nozzles provide the right mixture of air to promote growth. Large water tanks installed in the floor are filled with melted, filtered, and purified ice from the station. Water is then added to a “special nutrient solution” that is automatically sprayed on the plants every five to 10 minutes, a process called aeroponics. Bottles of carbon dioxide were shipped along with the container to provide the plants with ideal air. The air is then filtered by a UV radiation system similar to the closed-circuit system onboard the ISS.
In a land of extreme light cycles, the crew needed to make sure plants got a “blue and red light cocktail”. A customized water-cooled LED system allows for each light to be individually controlled by a computer. Plants are illuminated for 16 hours and get a standard eight hours of beauty rest without light.
Researchers say the experiment could have real applications for Earth-dwellers as well. With rising populations in the face of climate changes, demands for innovative ways to grow crops could help provide a solution for one of the “key societal challenges of the 21st century”.
The results look promising. By May, scientists say they are expecting a full operation of the container greenhouse with a harvest of 4-5 kilograms of fruits and vegetables each week.