Start of a new series of tests for plant cultivation on the moon and Mars

Nine weeks of darkness and temperatures down to minus 50 degrees Celsius. Under these harsh conditions of Antarctica, NASA and the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) have begun a joint series of experiments on vegetable cultivation techniques for use on the Moon and Mars. Until early 2022, NASA guest scientist Jess Bunchek will research how future astronauts could grow lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and herbs, using as little time and energy as possible. To this end, she will be working at DLR’s Eden ISS Antarctic greenhouse, where she will put greenhouse technologies and plant varieties to the test. She is also recording any effects the greenhouse and its yield have on the isolated hibernation crew in the perpetual ice. Bunchek is part of the 10-person overwintering crew on Neumayer Station III, operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI).

“The polar night will soon begin here on the Antarctic Ekström Ice Shelf. With the nine other members of the overwintering crew, it almost feels like we are alone on another planet,” says Bunchek. “In this hostile world, it’s fascinating to see the greenery thrive without soil and under artificial light.” Bunchek is a botanist from the Kennedy Space Center, where she has primarily supported the VEGGIE project on the International Space Station (ISS). She was able to sow the first seeds in recent weeks, following a technical reconditioning of the EDEN ISS platform conducted by her and the DLR team. The first harvest, which included lettuce, mustard greens, radishes, and various herbs, followed a few days ago.

The Eden ISS greenhouse uses particularly robust varieties that were selected by the Eden ISS Project team and from experiments at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and as part of the VEGGIE project on the ISS. The DLR/NASA mission also aims to record and compare the growth and yield of the crop varieties under the conditions of the Antarctic greenhouse. An additional focus will be studying which microbes thrive in the greenhouse alongside the cultivated plants.

NASA will also be testing a plant watering concept in the Eden Module that can operate in u-gravity settings, like the ISS. The system contains the water and delivers it to the plants by a passive method.  “This will provide a side-by-side comparison with the aeroponically grown plants of Eden ISS,” says Ray Wheeler, plant physiologist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In aeroponic irrigation, the roots of the plants without soil are regularly sprayed with a nutrient solution.

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