In the endless winter that is Antarctica, the picture of decadence is a juicy strawberry. Research scientists at the Neumayer III polar station may soon be so lucky as to count the treat—and other fresh fruits and vegetables—as part of their diets: engineers at the German Aerospace Center are currently building them a year-round greenhouse.
Called Eden ISS, the closed-system, 20-foot-long shipping container will head to Antarctica in October. The project is now in its final phase; next month Paul Zabel, the future caretaker of the greenhouse, and his colleagues will begin a trial of the garden in Bremen. In simulated Antarctic isolation, they plan to grow between 30 and 50 different species, including tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and strawberries, as well as herbs such as basil and parsley that could add fresh flavors to the packaged foods that make up the typical diet of an Antarctic scientist. “We are focused on pick-and-eat crops—plants that don't need any postprocessing,” Zabel says.
Cultivating greens in the Antarctic's hostile conditions requires extreme measures—temperatures on the Ekström Ice Shelf can drop to −22 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun disappears for months at a time. To beat the odds, Zabel has turned to the growing method known as aeroponics, which eliminates the need for soil (greenhouses at the American and Australian stations use this method, too). Instead fruit and veggie plants will sit on racks with their roots hanging in the air, where they receive a spritz of nutrient-rich mist every few minutes. Extra carbon dioxide will be pumped into the 75-degree F greenhouse for enrichment, and 42 LED lamps will be tuned to the red and blue wavelengths that plants thrive on, giving the greenhouse a purplish glow.
Biting into a ripe fruit or vegetable could boost morale for the 10 crew members set to overwinter at Neumayer III next season. But the garden is more than a treat for polar scientists, Zabel says. Ultimately the project is designed to test techniques for efficiently cultivating plant-based food in even more extreme environments, such as on the International Space Station or Mars.