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Can You Grow Tomatoes in Space? – We Will Soon Find Out as The EDEN Project Takes the Next Step and Moves to Antarctica

Sustained human presence in space requires the development of new technologies to maintain environmental control, to manage waste, to provide water, oxygen and food, and to keep astronauts healthy and psychologically fit. But growing a tomato in space where resources are scarce is not as easy as on Earth. Innovative food cultivation technologies in closed-loop life support systems must be developed as an integral part of future space systems1 to ensure future survival in space.

Two years ago Heliospectra joined a consortium of 14 research institutes and commercial partners2 in the European Horizon 2020 project. The project’s goal is to advance controlled environment agriculture technologies and provide a ground demonstration of plant cultivation technologies for future space applications. This means creating a closed greenhouse system that enables growth independent of weather and seasons—as well as for manned missions to the Moon or Mars.

Mockup of the EDEN ISS greenhouse in the South Pole. (Image credit: LIQUIFER System Group, 2016)

Engineers of the EDEN ISS project partners did an amazing job transforming a paper design to a real operating system over the past year. The result of this project is a Mobile Test Facility (MTF) consisting of two parts. The service section houses power, thermal, air management and water/nutrient delivery subsystems while providing working space for plant care and post-harvest procedures. The Future Exploration Greenhouse is the second section and features the main plant growth area with a highly adaptable multi-shelf vertical  system.

When we looked inside in early July, as the facility was tested at the backyard of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), it was already filled with lettuce, flowering cucumbers, tomatoes and other plants chosen for their taste, structure and nutritional values. All brightly illuminated by Heliospectra lights.

Vegetable farming during the EDEN ISS trial run and growth shelf with Heliospectra LED grow light.

Heliospectra delivered a sophisticated lighting system adapted for the closed environment. Based on our commercial LX60 series top lights, we constructed water-cooled lighting panels which could easily integrate with other subsystems and be externally controlled. Of course, the light intensity and spectral output are flexible to enable the research team to optimize lighting conditions for a wide variety of crops and use remote imaging techniques monitor plant growth and health.

Paul Zabel in the EDEN ISS greenhouse.

Has it been a success? Well, the hardest test is yet to come, but initial trials running from June to August 2017 in Bremen produced an impressive 40 kilograms of cucumbers, radishes, peppers, lettuce and herbs. What’s more impressive, there has been no loss of water. The only water that leaves the self-sufficient greenhouse system is in the harvested vegetables and fruit.

The loading at the port of Hamburg.

So where is the project now?  On October 8, 2017 the Mobile Test Facility (MTF) started its big journey. Not to space quite yet, but to one of the Earth’s most hostile environments—Antarctica.  It will be transported on a deck of a cargo ship to the Neumayer III polar research station.  DLR scientist Paul Zabel will move with it to supervise a year-long scientific research campaign which will provide supplementary fresh food for the crew of the polar research station over the long darkness of the winter season. The actual crop cultivation experiment in Antarctica will begin at the end of December 2017.

We know that light plays a critical role in the future production of fresh fruit and vegetables and controlled environment agriculture.  As the Mobile Test Facility and the Eden ISS project continues the journey, Heliospectra eagerly awaits the insights and results achieved with our flexible spectrum and the closed-loop greenhouse system to advance commercial crop production today—and tomorrow.

About the EDEN ISS

EDEN ISS is part of a German research program under the DLR Institute of Space Systems (ISS). The overall goal of the EDEN ISS initiative is to adapt, integrate and demonstrate crop cultivation techniques and operational procedures for reliable, sustainable food production on board the international space station and in future space projects. The project is financed with funds from the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation under project number 636501.

 

  1. EDEN ISS Ground Demonstration of Plant Cultivation Technologies for Safe Food Production in Space information leaflet available from www.eden-iss.net
  2. DLR German Aerospace Center (Germany), LIQUIFER Systems Group (Austria), National Research Council (Italy), University of Guelph (Canada), Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (Germany), Enginsoft S.p.A. (Italy), Airbus Defence and Space (Germany), Thales Alenia Space Italia S.p.A. (Italy), Arescosmo S.p.A. (Italy), Wageningen University and Research (the Netherlands), Heliospectra AB (Sweden), Limerick Institute of Technology (Ireland), Telespazio S.p.A. (Italy), University of Florida (USA)