Vegetables Grown in Antarctica Without Soil or Daylight Pave the Way for Mars Mission

Vegetables grown in a lab in Antarctica are helping scientists understand how to grow food in space.
Jessica Miley
The photo credit line may appear like thisDLR

Scientists at Germany's Neumayer Station III in Antarctica have just harvested a crop of vegetables grown in the unlikely location of their Antarctic lab. The haul consisted of 3.6 kg of salad greens, 18 cucumbers, and 70 radishes.

Vegetables Grown in Antarctica Without Soil or Daylight Pave the Way for Mars Mission
Source: DLR

The tasty looking salad ingredients were grown in a lab called EDEN-ISS and everything was produced without dirt, daylight, or pesticides. The vegetables were grown using techniques from hydroponics.

Vegetables Grown in Antarctica Without Soil or Daylight Pave the Way for Mars Mission
Source: Facebook/SpaceEden-ISS

Center aims to ramp up production

Instead of soil, the vegetable roots sat in nutrient-rich water and optimized LED lighting mimicked sun conditions "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," said Paul Zabel, an engineer involved with the project.

"Fortunately, all these things could be fixed and overcome." This initial salad is just the beginning for The German Aerospace Center, which coordinates the project. The center has plans to ramp up production so they can harvest 4-5 kilograms of vegetables a week.

"I am an engineer, so first I had to gain a basic understanding of the plants to recognize whether they are flourishing early on," Zabel commented. The project has exciting application for growing food in other harsh conditions like space.

Mars mission requires fresh produce

The International Space Station (ISS) has also tried their hand at small-scale farming without dirt or sunlight. In 2015 astronaut Scott Kelly grew several types of lettuce on the space station.


This Antarctic-based project looks to expand from just greens into other vegetables including radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and even herbs. Learning how to grow food in tough conditions is essential for future potential missions to Mars.

NASA’s Gioia Massa says, "The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling, and psychological benefit. I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario."

Vegetables Grown in Antarctica Without Soil or Daylight Pave the Way for Mars Mission
Source: NASA

LEDs key for plant growth

Both the Antarctic and ISS projects use different colored LED lights to stimulate growth. Red and blue lights mix to make a pinkish light that is necessary for plants to photosynthesis.

"Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plant growth," Ray Wheeler from NASA's Exploration Research and Technology Programs Office said. "They are probably the most efficient in terms of electrical power conversion. The green LEDs help to enhance the human visual perception of the plants, but they don't put out as much light as the reds and blues."

Kimball Musk use hydroponics to bring farms to cities

Other projects that use a similar system include Square Roots an agricultural start-up funded by Kimbal Musk.

The company uses shipping containers fitted with hydroponics systems to grow food in small urban spaces. The company aims to cut down the environmentally damaging transport of fresh goods and encourage people to eat locally grown food.


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