NASA, DLR Begin New Test Run for Plant Cultivation on the Moon and Mars in Antarctica

Jess Bunchek holds her first harvest in her hand. (Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institut/Ort)
  • NASA guest scientist Jess Bunchek will conduct research in the Antarctic greenhouse until early 2022.
  • Crop yield, plant irrigation, microbiology, crew time and effects on the wellbeing of the wintering team are the focus of the new research mission.
  • The YouTube livestream for the DLR press conference “EDEN ISS – Antarctic Greenhouse Mission 2021” was held on May 4th, 2021 at 4:00 p.m. CEST.

NEUMAYER STATION III, Antarctica (DLR PR) — Nine weeks of darkness and cold to minus 50 degrees Celsius. A joint series of experiments begins under the harsh conditions of the Antarctic by NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) for growing vegetables on the moon and Mars. NASA guest scientist Jess Bunchek is researching until the beginning of 2022 how astronauts can grow lots of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and herbs with as little time and energy as possible. 

To do this, she works in the DLR Antarctic greenhouse EDEN ISS. It puts greenhouse technology and plant varieties to the test. It also records how the green habitat and its fruits affect the isolated winter crew in the eternal ice. Jess Bunchek is part of the ten-person wintering team on the vom Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI)  Neumayer Station III.

Antarctic greenhouse EDEN ISS. (Credit: DLR/NASA/Bunchek)

First harvest: lettuce, radishes and herbs

“The polar night will soon begin here on the Antarctic Ekström Ice Shelf. With the nine other members of the wintering crew alone, it almost feels as if we are on our own on another planet, ”says Bunchek. “It is fascinating to see the green without soil flourish under artificial light in this hostile world.”

Jess Bunchek harvesting lettuce. (Credit: AWI/Baden)

Bunchek is a botanist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where she previously mainly supported the VEGGIE project on the International Space Station (ISS). After a technical overhaul of the EDEN ISS research platform by the DLR team, it was able to sow the first seeds in the past few weeks.  The first harvest of lettuce, radishes and various herbs followed a few days ago.

NASA seeds and new nutrient supply system

In the Antarctic, particularly robust varieties are used, which were selected by the EDEN ISS project team as well as during experiments in the Kennedy Space Center and as part of the VEGGIE project on the ISS. It is also the aim of the DLR/NASA mission to record and compare the growth and yield of the varieties under the conditions of the Antarctic greenhouse. 

In addition, the focus is shifting to which microbes thrive when growing plants in the greenhouse. In the EDEN ISS module, NASA will also test a concept for plant irrigation that can work under weightlessness like on the International Space Station. The system holds and transports the water to the plants through a passive method. 

“This enables a direct comparison with the plants actively aeroponically moistened at EDEN ISS up to now,” says Dr. Ray Wheeler, Plant Physiologist at Kennedy Space Center. With aeroponic irrigation, the roots of the plants without soil are regularly sprayed with a nutrient solution.”

Crew time, a precious commodity

Sowing, harvesting, tending, cleaning, servicing, calibrating, repairing and scientific activities. With an eight-sided special cube for time recording, Bunchek registers every second of her activities in the Antarctic greenhouse. Because crew time will be a precious commodity on later missions to the moon and Mars. 

“In a first test run of the greenhouse during the 2018 mission, we found that operation was still taking too much time,” explains EDEN-ISS project manager Dr. Daniel Schubert from Bremen DLR Institute for Space Systems. “We are now working on optimizing processes and procedures. We learned a lot about handling a greenhouse in extreme conditions. We are fully implementing this with the current joint DLR/NASA mission.”

View of Neumayer III. (Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

“In addition to the crew’s time, the focus is on their well-being. The overwinterers regularly answer questions about their eating habits or how the plants affect the mood. We hope to improve our understanding of the supply of plants and fresh food to crews in remote, isolated environments like Neumayer III and ultimately to space, ” says Wheeler.

Eight months in isolation

On January 19th, Jess reached Bunchek with the research vessel Polarstern the Antarctic continent. Since March 19, the ten-person wintering crew at Neumayer Station III operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute has been on their own. 

“EDEN ISS enriches the crew in many ways. I know from my own wintering experience how much you can lack fresh food. It’s not just about taste. Then there are the smells, the colors and the fascinating fact that something grows in an inhospitable environment, ”says Dr. Tim Heitland, Medical Coordinator and Operations Manager at AWI. “That is why there are always volunteers in the wintering teams who help with the rearing and harvesting of the plants.” 

The polar night begins on May 21 this year at Neumayer Station III. Only from the 23 July the first rays of sunshine will shine on the station again. Summer season researchers and new supplies will end the isolation of this year’s winter crew around early November.

The activities in the Antarctic greenhouse EDEN ISS can be viewed on social media using the hashtag #MadeInAntarctica. The Antarctic greenhouse is represented with channels on Facebook and Instagram as well as an image gallery on Flickr. In the blog, Jess Bunchek writes about her personal impressions of the Antarctic mission. With a new tool the plants of the EDEN ISS greenhouse in Antarctica can be observed. Every day, images from 34 cameras allow you to see how the plants are growing.

EDEN ISS: the future of food supplies

Global food production is one of the central societal challenges of the 21st century. An increasing world population with simultaneous upheavals due to climate change require new ways to cultivate crops even in climatically unfavorable regions. An enclosed greenhouse is a very promising concept for future missions to the Moon and Mars. 

On earth, it enables harvests independent of weather, sun and season, as well as less water consumption and the elimination of pesticides and insecticides. With the EDEN ISS project, such a model greenhouse of the future is undergoing long-term testing under extreme Antarctic conditions. 

In the first extensive winter research campaign in 2018 greenhouse had produced a total of 268 kilograms of food in just 12.5 square meters in nine and a half months. These included 67 kilograms of cucumbers, 117 kilograms of lettuce and 50 kilograms of tomatoes. As a result of the research work, a new greenhouse concept was created for future space missions.