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Scientists grow vegetables in Antarctica, offering implications for growing food sources in space

Our greenhouse remains a closed system, not subject to the whims of the weather. On top of being a technological marvel, it makes it possible for future astronauts to benefit from similar systems in their missions in space. Our success in Antarctica not only serves a source of pride for us, it represents a huge milestone in the development of technologies that could one day help sustain life on other planets.

  • 12 months ago
  • May 8, 2023
4 min read
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Agronomist Jorge Birgi is a technician at INTA (National Institute of Agricultural Technology) Santa Cruz, and a Researcher at INTA and the National University of Southern Patagonia (UNPA). In 2019, he joined a team in Antarctica that took part in installing a hydroponic module to produce vegetables, offering implications of growing food in space.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Hydroponics is a cultivation system that grows plants in a solution of water with nutrients, without the need for soil. In addition, the water used can be recovered and recycled, and nutrients can be obtained from various sources, including fish excrement, a technique known as aquaponics. Marambio Station is a permanent, all year-round Argentine Antarctica station named after Vice-Commodore Gustavo Argentino Marambio, an Antarctic aviation pioneer. 

ANTARCTICA, Argentina — I am part of a team sent to Antarctica to accomplish an incredible task: cultivate fresh fruits and vegetables in the unforgiving cold of the continent. The logistics involved in achieving this feat seemed daunting at first. With hard work and determination, we managed to do the impossible. 

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This project could change everything

As you walk into the 20-foot-long shipping container, you see fresh vegetables growing from the hydroponic system in place. The smell of fresh soil and growing plants fills your nostrils. The closed system ensures no pests enter, eliminating the need for harmful pesticides or insecticides. The only sounds are the soft hum of the fans and the occasional drip of water. Electrical energy pumps through the three-layer insulation system and heating, keeping the frigid temperatures and icy conditions outside at bay. The vegetables abound, supplying the entire crew at the Marambio base in Antarctica. What’s left, we put in storage. 

We needed to supply food for the crew living and working at various bases in Antarctica. We used to rely heavily on canned and preserved foods to sustain us during long, cold months. Now, we grow vibrant vegetables full of flavor to work with. We even trained some of the personnel in the art of horticulture, providing them with a sense of accomplishment and a boost to their morale. Inside the container, we created an artificial ecosystem, giving the plants everything they need to thrive.

We provided them with clean air, water, and light. LED lights replicate what the plants need for photosynthesis. Our greenhouse remains a closed system, not subject to the whims of the weather. On top of being a technological marvel, it makes it possible for future astronauts to benefit from similar systems in their missions in space. Our success in Antarctica not only serves a source of pride for us, it represents a huge milestone in the development of technologies that could one day help sustain life on other planets.

Our goal was to leave a positive impact on humanity, and future generations to come

The work itself feels very challenging. We needed to create a unique atmosphere with a specific composition to ensure our plants grow and remain healthy. The task felt extremely difficult, but we approached it with great enthusiasm. Because it is a closed system, our technology can be tested anywhere. We selected Antarctica because it felt like a station on the Moon or Mars. Antarctica remained isolated in every aspect, somewhere you would never expect this to work. To venture outside, we needed special suits and depended heavily on technology to survive. The harsh temperatures and conditions only made us more determined to succeed. 

What we created holds the potential to impact the entire world. Our technologies can be used to produce food in areas of the world where it would not otherwise be possible. I feel immense pride and joy at the work we have accomplished. Every morning, as I walk through the snow and ice, as the cold fills my nostrils, I see the beauty of the landscape. It takes my breath away. The vast white hills, punctuated by giant glaciers and icebergs, creates a surreal and magical atmosphere.

At night, the stars shine brightly in the clear sky. I feel a sense of wonder at the vastness of the universe. As I continue to work on this project, I feel good knowing the positive impact we are leaving behind. By using innovative technology to produce sustainable food, we help create a better future for ourselves and for generations to come. I feel privileged to be part of such an innovative and groundbreaking project, and we’re excited to see where it will take us in the next 10 years. 

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