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