Saturday, April 13

We are growing plants in Antarctica at -40º C. It depends on its success that we colonize space

The history of space exploration is also the history of space cuisine. If we want ever longer missions and more distant places, if we want to establish permanent bases on the Moon or one day reach Mars, one of the great challenges we must face is: How to feed the astronauts? How to guarantee that they will have access to safe, nutritious food, capable of covering all their needs and that, as far as possible, is also tasty?

We have part of the answer in one of the most remote and desolate regions of our planet. Remote and desolate enough, in fact, to put our farming knowledge to the test in extreme environments: the South Pole.

A commitment that comes from afar. As historian of Antarctic science Daniella McCahey explains in an article published in The Conversation, the effort to cultivate crops in the South Pole goes back a long way, even before the space race. 120 years ago Reginald Koettlitz was already managing to grow potted mustard and watercress plants with soil from McMurdo Sound in full sail, demonstrating the possibilities of the soil and its benefits for the crew.

Over the following decades, other attempts succeeded, leaving two ideas clear: how difficult it was to cultivate directly in the landscapes of the South Pole, and how arid that soil was for most plants. Not even attempts with greenhouses achieved good results.

Better a good laboratory than a bad soil. The strategy changed from the 1960s, a key stage in space exploration. If the land made it so difficult for plantations… Why not use water and air? Since the natural conditions of Antarctica were so extreme, what would happen if other artificial ones were generated, similar to those of more benign climates?

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The solution that was proposed was the hydroponic method, which consists of growing food without soil, with the help of special supports, inorganic substrate and water with nutrients. Another of the formulas he resorted to is aeroponics, something different: if the first is based on water, the second is characterized by keeping the roots in suspension and feeding them with sprayers.

And for sample, a button. Over the years, cultivation techniques have continued to refine and expand, and by 2015, McCahey estimates, there were already 42 facilities spread across Antarctica where plants had been grown. Perhaps one of the most interesting and illustrative examples is left by the Eden Iss greenhouse, which despite the harsh conditions of its surroundings, with storms and temperatures below -40ºC, has managed to provide the Neumayer III team with vegetables.

In August 2018, the Eden Isses revealed how 77 kilos of lettuce, 51 cucumbers, 29 tomatoes and 12 kohlrabi had come out of their greenhouse, in which 65% relative humidity and 21ºC are recreated, among other vegetables. It is not a bad balance for a space of just 13 m2. Another example is the South Pole Farming Chamber, which wants to offer “an analog on Earth for some of the problems that will arise when food production moves to space dwellings.”

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A “terrain” with valuable synergies. It is quite evident: the South Pole and space are two different environments, but they share one characteristic: their extreme nature. In this common point, researchers have found more than interesting synergies. This is demonstrated by CEADSE, an initiative supported in its day by the EU and which focused on agriculture in “controlled environments” in which it is necessary to reduce weights, consumption and waste to a minimum, needs applicable to both the icy polar regions and to the corridors of the International Space Station (ISS).

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In their laboratory in Bremen, the researchers tested vegetable chambers equipped with aeroponic irrigation systems, LED systems, water cooling, control and monitoring, or even ultraviolet disinfection technologies. Nutrient sensors or level production were also tested during the program. His conclusions were key to Eden Iss.

Much more than a menu. The truth is that experiments with crops in space seek much more than offer fresh and nutritious food to astronauts. Some studies suggest that including plants in long duration missions has positive effects on crew morale.

Not only that. Those responsible for CEADSE emphasize the advantages of bioregenerative life support systems —BLSS, for its acronym in English— and list at least four key points, in addition to the psychological effects on the crew: it facilitates resupply, especially on missions that increasingly distant goals are set, the absorption of carbon dioxide, the generation of oxygen, the recycling of water and the degradation of biological waste.

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A commitment that is already bearing fruit… And in the most literal sense of the expression. Decades of research have already allowed us to grow some crops in space. On the ISS they have produced red lettuce, plants that are totally safe and as nutritious as those that grow in greenhouses on Earth; and at the end of 2021, NASA itself released images in which peppers grown from seeds could be seen as part of the Plant Habitat-04 experiment.

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The most curious thing is that we have not only managed to carry out plantations on the International Space Station. There are already experiments that allow us to dream of orchards on the Moon itself. In 2019, the Chinese mission Chang’e4 made history by getting a seed to germinate on our natural satellite, although not directly on its soil, but on the lunar lander. And just a few weeks ago the University of Florida went a little further with another milestone: growing vegetables directly on regolith samples brought back from the Moon by the Apollo missions.

Images and video | German Aerospace Center (DLR)

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