News & Opinion | March 23, 2019 5:00 am

To Learn How to Grow Plants In Space, Look to the Coldest Place on Earth

Scientists at a research base in Antarctica are testing ways to bring fresh produce to Mars missions.

Neumayer Station III (Wikimedia Commons/Felix Riess/AWI/2009)
Felix Riess, AWI

At Neumayer Station III on Antarctica’s Ekström Ice Shelf, you can find a greenhouse filled with swiss chard, fresh herbs and arugula. Those crops are part of several agricultural projects underway where scientists are trying to learn how to grow food in outer space. Researchers at Neumayer Station III want to know if astronauts ever make it to Mars, can fresh produce be a part of their daily diet?

The station, located on the east coast of the Weddell Sea, is only reachable by plane or icebreaker during the Antarctic summer, and only if the weather is permitting. It offers the closest thing to the extreme conditions of space here on Earth. Nine crew members live at Neumayer Station III at a time, and do much of their work in one building. The greenhouse is a bit of a beacon for those isolated at the station. Nutrients are delivered to the plants through a sprayed solution, and researchers control the temperature, lighting and carbon dioxide levels.

“The other interesting thing is that you don’t smell anything in Antarctica, but then you come into the greenhouse and you smell tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, vegetables,” said photographer Esther Horvath, who spent nine days at the station in January, to National Geographic. “It is something very calming and recharging.”