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Plants in a room.
Photo Credit: Lane Patterson
The South Pole Food Growth Chamber at full bloom. The hydroponic greenhouse was built during the winter of 2004, and it went into full operation the next year. It's a model for how colonies on other planets might grow food — or, closer to home, in crowded urban environments.

To the moon

South Pole greenhouse model for growing freshies on other worlds

The automated South Pole Station External U.S. government site Food Growth Chamber offers comfort and nutrition for people living and working at the bottom of the world. It’s also proving to be a model for supporting off-world exploration as well.

The growth chamber, or greenhouse as the crew calls it, is a moist environment in the driest environment on Earth. It also serves as an intimate space for crewmembers to relax and meet among the aromatic plant life soon to be served at the dinner table.

Population and station traffic peak during the short sunny summer at South Pole between October and February. During the long, dark winter, the sun is absent from the sky, and all the fresh vegetables the crew eats are grown in the 70-cubic-yard growth chamber.

Crops of lettuce, kale, cucumber, peppers, herbs, tomatoes, cantaloupes and edible flowers comprise many of the plants grown in the climate-controlled chamber. Because the importation of soil is restricted by the Antarctic Treaty External U.S. government site, dirt is not used to grow the plants. In fact, the closest local dirt is nearly two miles beneath the ice on which the station sits. The plants are grown in a hydroponic nutrient solution instead — no dirt needed.

People sort seed packets.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Polies sort through seed packets in preparation for planting.
Plants in a room.
Photo Credit: Lane Patterson
Lunar greenhouse.

For that matter, no sunlight is needed either. The growth chamber, which was built in the winter of 2004, makes its own light via 13 water-cooled, high-pressure sodium lamps. In this bright environment, it is not uncommon to find people, like the plants, dwelling happily under the intense light produced in the chamber during the dark polar winter.   

“Most of us miss green things. We give up fields of grass, flowers and trees when we sign on for a season in this high, cold desert,” says Dr. Ella Derbyshire, a physician who wintered over in 2010. “But the greenhouse is a bright, warm oasis where we can feel water vapor in the air and smell green growing plants. It heals us and reminds us of the living world beyond the ice.”

Derbyshire’s sentiments are common among the men and women living at South Pole. But there’s an added bonus to the greenhouse in addition to fresh food and warm feelings.

The plants produce oxygen as they grow. While oxygen is abundant at the South Pole, as elsewhere on the planet, it is lacking on the moon or Mars — likely places for human colonies in outer space.

The National Science Foundation’s External U.S. government site South Pole Station is an obvious analog for what such colonies might be like. And a sort of ‘offspring’ of the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, the Lunar Greenhouse Prototype, is now operating at the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center External Non-U.S. government site in Tucson.

The Lunar Greenhouse Prototype, funded by NASA’s External U.S. government site Steckler Space Grant for advancing Space Colonization, further investigates bio-regenerative life support for space applications.

It employs much of the same technology used by the South Pole Food Growth Chamber, such as the water-cooled lamps, automated hydroponic delivery, and climate-controlled environment. And like the South Pole greenhouse, we can monitor and control it remotely via the Internet.

People in a classroom
Photo Credit: Lane Patterson
Students at Singularity University.

The Lunar Greenhouse demonstrates how a modular, lightweight growth chamber could be collapsed for launch on a spacecraft and deployed on another world (Videos of lunar chamber deployment and lunar chamber construction External Non-U.S. government site.) It also serves as a test-bed for future plant growth systems used in life support on long-term peopled space missions.

Recently, findings produced by the South Pole Food Growth Chamber were presented to the students at the Singularity University External Non-U.S. government site on the NASA Ames External U.S. government site campus. Resources consumed by the chamber at South Pole, such as energy, water, carbon dioxide, fertilizer salts and labor, were compared with both the plant and oxygen production they made possible.

These findings served as “food for thought” to the students, who took on the task of considering how to develop and implement robust food production systems that sustainably nourish future human populations while restoring and maintaining Earth’s ecosystems.

In this context, the students were given a detailed look at how such healthy environments can be incorporated into our urban architecture in order to solve problems that we face in this century of booming populations, and limited resources and space.

Joe Romagnano and Gene Giacomelli contributed to this article.  

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs