Antarctic Veggies Prep For Space

Remote-sensing technology helps researchers in Antarctica simulate growing produce in the harsh conditions of deep space.

By Laura Barrera | Photos By DLR German Aerospace Center

Many farmers have turned to drones to give them a bird’s-eye view of field-crop health. Now, that same remote-sensing camera technology, sans the altitude, is being used in a confined space in an unusual locale—a 20-foot-long shipping container in Antarctica. Despite the drastic difference in location, the goal is the same: Detect distress in plants before it becomes a problem.

Inside the repurposed container, named EDEN ISS, produce is grown without soil, daylight or pesticides in the Analogue Mission Antarctica project. While the plants provide fresh food for the 10-person crew at the German Neumayer-Station III—including lettuce, radishes, cucumbers and tomatoes—the research objective is to develop safe food production for use onboard the International Space Station, on the moon or even on Mars.

Anna-Lisa Paul and Robert Ferl, University of Florida space biologists on the EDEN ISS team, say Antarctica’s remoteness and extreme environment make it an ideal place to test this technology. Their role is to communicate with the Neumayer crew about problems that may be occurring in the plants, which they identify from their Florida lab through cameras that pick up non-visible light reflected from the plants, before the symptoms are visible to the naked eye.

“By the time the plant is wilted or the leaves are turning yellow, you have already done substantial damage to the plant,” Paul says.

While the project was designed with astronauts in mind, it’s already making a difference for the isolated researchers in Antarctica. Ferl says that the reports he and Paul receive from the crew are that “having good, fresh food has tremendous impact on their ability to live in the darkness of day and extreme cold. The future impact of having plants be able to support astronauts during long missions in deep space is being well supported by the information coming out of the project.” 

Paul says this research also may impact small-scale food producers and consumers, explaining that the lighting and hydroponic systems in the research greenhouses now are used in homes and commercially. Above all, EDEN ISS highlights the importance of agriculture, Ferl says, as NASA and the ISS community work hard to ensure future generations and astronauts will have the technology to access nutrition from plants.

“These are people that normally build rockets and space stations, and they’re helping us build agriculture in strange and wonderful places,” he says. “That’s a huge message about the value of food production, and that food production is something to be valued by everybody.”