In the not too distant future, someone will undoubtedly grow crops on other worlds. That’s what Matt Damon did in the Ridley Scott sci-fi movie, The Martian,
growing potatoes in his habitat.
According to Tim Peake, an English astronaut from ESA, the first explorers could arrive on Mars within 20 years. They will be able to thank Giorgio Boscheri, a 34-year-old engineer who recently took part in the EDEN ISS (International Space Station) project in Antarctica. For crews on long-duration space missions, fresh crops will deliver major benefits, both physiologically and psychologically.
Funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Program, the EDEN ISS project focuses on the “Ground Demonstration of Plant Cultivation Technologies for Safe Food Production in Space”.
We asked Giorgio Boscheri, technical manager for bioregenerative technologies R&D, to share his insights.
Why is the Antarctica a good place to test these technologies?
Antarctica is analogous to a space exploration mission in three ways, starting with microbiology: the environment outside your module does not contribute to microbial contamination, and you need to handle only the microbes carried by equipment and crew. This is really important to test solutions for safe and robust cultivation in a controlled environment. Antarctica is also similar to many space missions from the logistics standpoint, since the greenhouse cannot be resupplied for nine months of the year. During this polar winter, all operations must be performed within the confined volume of your system, because outside environmental conditions are prohibitive. The last analogy is psychological: the Antarctica greenhouse will be a warm and alive habitat for the winter crew, where they can spend time together and be in contact with life, to resist their barren surroundings.
Giorgio, what was your exact role on this project?
I was initially responsible for assembly of the system and operational checks after shipment and after integration with the base infrastructure. After that, my main task was to plant the first seeds in the greenhouse, monitor crop development and finish training our winter crew.
Can you already evaluate the results of the mission? What are the next steps?
The greenhouse is up and running nominally, which is already a good start. Being able to operate the system “in-situ” is also a great result. We have already identified a few necessary improvements for future development, mainly to reduce crew workload and to cope with the limited space. Our next challenges will be remotely operating the greenhouse in the short term, and then “spatializing” key equipment, pending positive test results.
You spent 30 days in one of the most remote places on Earth. What was it like staying so far from home? What was a typical work day like in Antarctica?
Staying away from my family was really hard, especially with my 4-month-old son at home. However, being able to avoid traffic, pollution and everyday troubles made things a bit better! The Neumayer III base was really comfortable, providing a friendly environment and favoring rest and concentration. The day was ordered around the main meals, breakfast at 7 AM, lunch at Noon, dinner at 6 PM. In the morning and in the afternoon I generally walked through snow to the greenhouse, hosted in a double 20-feet container 400 meters south of the main base. Our work really depended on the daily weather. After dinner, there was usually time for the team to get together and discuss upcoming tasks, get some office work done and prepare for the next day. A few times a week, we also made time to play a game, work out or take a quick trip outside on a snowmobile.
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Photos coprights: DLR - Bruno Stubenrauch - iStock photos