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Lettuces, cucumbers and radishes grow in an Antarctic greenhouse

09 April 2018

While the temperatures in the Antarctic drop below 20°C and the Sun barely rises, plants cultivated in the experimental greenhouse EDEN ISS are thriving.

Radishes before harvest (Credit: DLR)

After the first three weeks, Paul Zabel from the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) has, over the last few days, harvested the first crops in the cold environment. The first harvest produced 3.6kg of lettuce, 70 radishes and 18 cucumbers. What is now destined to enrich the diet of the overwintering crew demonstrates how astronauts on future Moon and Mars missions could be supplied with fresh produce.

"Once I had finished sowing in mid-February, I struggled with a few unexpected difficulties, such as minor system failures and the fiercest storm of the last year," explains Zabel, an engineer and Antarctic gardener from the DLR Institute of Space Systems. "Thankfully, I was able to fix all the problems and survive the ordeal." 

Project Manager Daniel Schubert adds: "We have learned a lot about self-contained plant cultivation in recent weeks, and it has become evident that the Antarctic is an ideal test environment for our research." Now all the planned plants are growing in the greenhouse, including radishes, various types of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and herbs (basil, parsley, chives and coriander). "The cultivation of strawberries is the only thing that we have not yet started," says Schubert. “We are still waiting for a successful sowing." The DLR researchers expect the container greenhouse to be operating at full capacity in May. They will then be able to harvest four to five kilograms of fresh vegetables each week.

DLR researcher Paul Zabel holds a freshly harvested Antarctic lettuce in his hands (Credit: DLR)

Welcome additions to the menu

A 10-strong overwintering crew is currently living in the Alfred Wegener Institute's Neumayer Station III. The fresh vegetables they received with the last delivery at the end of February have all been consumed, so the residents are happy with the new additions to their menu. "Seeing our first fresh Antarctic salad was a truly special moment," says station manager Bernhard Gropp. "It tasted like it had just been harvested from the garden."

Currently, Zabel spends three to four hours per day tending to the plants in the greenhouse, which is situated approximately 400m from Neumayer Station III. He is mainly occupied with checking the technical systems and typical gardening activities such as pruning the plants. Meanwhile, he is in regular contact with the control centre at the DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen, which is monitoring the plant cultivation remotely. On particularly stormy days, for instance recently on 21 March, Daniel Schubert and his team, Matthew Bamsey and Conrad Zeidler, are solely responsible for monitoring the greenhouse from Bremen until Paul Zabel is able to make his way from the station. This temporary measure can be maintained for up to three days.

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