South Pole inhabitants can now indulge on self-grown, fresh veggies, instead of living off canned and frozen cuisine.
Gene Giacomelli, director of the controlled environment agriculture program, built a growth chamber that is currently producing lettuce and other goodies at the South Pole. He also works on another chamber that is planned to go to Mars or the moon in a NASA spacecraft, he said.
How does it work? In extreme environments, such as those of the South Pole or Mars, plants can be grown in controlled rooms without windows, using artificial light sources, Giacomelli said. “We believe that we can grow any crop anywhere, anytime,” he said. “What I don’t add on there is at what cost.” But despite the high costs of such a project, researchers at the South Pole were demanding for fresh vegetables because it is impossible to maintain any supply traffic to and from the pole during the long winters, Giacomelli said.
The plants had to grow from sterile seeds that were brought to the pole because it is illegal to import soil and live plants, Giacomelli said. Therefore, all the plants grow hydroponically, which means they grow in a nutrient solution without soil. A glass wall divides the chamber and the real growth room, where the plants get warm lights, humidity and greenery. Hypothetically, 10,000 heads of small lettuce could be grown in the costly $500,000 chamber annually, but the pole residents also grow herbs, tomatoes and cucumbers in it, Giacomelli said. “We provided a product that solves problems down there. And we will see in the future how well it works.”