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EDEN ISS operated by NASA plant scientist Jess Bunchek in 2021

Jess Bunckek's year at EDEN ISS    References

The EDEN ISS greenhouse, developed by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), has been in Antarctica since 2018. It was created to conduct research into food production in deserts and cold regions, as well as exploring the possibility of growing fresh food in the hostile conditions on the Moon or Mars. Plant scientist Jess Bunchek of NASA's Kennedy Space Center will spend a year on the perpetual ice as a DLR guest researcher during the winter of 2021, during which time she will grow vegetables without soil and under artificial light. She will be part of the overwintering crew at the Neumayer III Antarctic Station, which is operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI). After months of training, the crew will set sail on 20 December 2020, on board the AWI research vessel Polarstern, embarking on a one-month non-stop voyage across the Atlantic. They are scheduled to reach Antarctica in late January. Prior to that, the crew will be quarantined to rule out any COVID-19 infections on board. 1)

"EDEN ISS is a unique project. There are few other facilities like it in the world," says Bunchek, who is currently working at the DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen, Germany. "The extreme climate and overwintering aspect make it all the more unique. This collaboration between DLR and NASA is intended to help inform the design of a future greenhouse on the Moon or Mars and determine what is needed to support astronaut crews."

Figure 1: NASA guest scientist set to spend a year at DLR's EDEN ISS Antarctic. The EDEN ISS greenhouse, developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), has been in Antarctica since 2018. It was created to conduct research into food production in deserts and cold regions, as well as exploring the possibility of growing fresh food in...(video credit: ©DLR/NASA)

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Figure 2: Mission logo for the 2021 EDEN ISS mission (image credit: ©DLR)

Extensive preparations

At the DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen, Bunchek learned how to operate the Antarctic greenhouse during the polar night, via a digital connection with the control center at the Institute. System data and plant growth are digitally monitored from there, and it is also possible to operate the greenhouse remotely for a few days in the event of Antarctic storms. "With Jess Bunchek on site and the collaboration with NASA, we now have a unique opportunity to advance our research in the EDEN ISS greenhouse and to take things to a new level. This ambitious research program is an important milestone for the creation of a greenhouse module inside an international lunar station, with a view to crewed missions to Mars," says EDEN ISS Project Manager Daniel Schubert. As part of the joint project, some lettuces and varieties of vegetables have already been harvested in the Antarctic, and NASA has tested them for space suitability on the International Space Station (ISS).

Bunchek has also conducted extensive preparations for the extreme conditions in Antarctica with the new ten-member overwintering crew, including completing a glacier course in the Alps and undergoing fire protection training. "Preparation is everything," stresses Bunchek. "I think our period of preparation makes the Neumayer III Station particularly interesting. It has long been compared to other stations, partly because AWI wants to ensure that the overwintering team has the right balance of people. And then there is also the fact that we are going to be isolated for the whole winter, so we have to be prepared for any situation."

A voyage to the southern continent by ship due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Neumayer III Station operated by AWI, will be supplied exclusively by sea this year. The research vessel Polarstern will bring material and fuel to the Antarctic as usual. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all people working at the station will also travel by ship this season. Polarstern is scheduled to dock in Atka Bay on approximately 20 January 2021. Then the 25 people travelling on board the ship can disembark and start working at Neumayer III Station: AWI scientists will maintain the observatories for air chemistry, geophysics and meteorology and exchange information on long-term measurements with the old and new overwintering crews. Technicians ensure that the station infrastructure remains functional.

EDEN ISS – future food supply

Global food production is one of the key challenges facing societies in the 21st century. An ever-increasing world population and ongoing upheavals due to climate change mean that there is a need for new solutions for cultivating plants, even in regions with an unfavorable climate. In deserts and locations with low temperatures, closed greenhouses allow produce to be harvested regardless of sunlight and the time of year, as well as using less water and eliminating the need for pesticides and insecticides. The EDEN ISS project is subjecting a futuristic model greenhouse of this kind to long-term testing in extreme Antarctic conditions. In the first extensive overwinter research campaign, the greenhouse produced a total of 268 kilograms of food in an area of just 12.5 m2 over the course of nine and a half months. This included 67 kg of cucumbers, 117 kg of lettuce and 50 kg of tomatoes. An initial greenhouse concept for future space missions has been developed using the results of this research.

For more information, read the full interview with Jess Bunchek, where she talks about her home country – the USA, her preparations in Germany during the COVID-19 pandemic, Christmas celebrations at sea and her upcoming adventure on the planet's iciest continent.

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Figure 3: Jess Bunchek in the MCC (Mission Control Center), image credit: DLR, Caspari

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Figure 4: Jess Bunchek working on the Veggie Station (image credit: NASA)

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Figure 5: Jess Bunchek during survival training in the Alps (image credit: DLR)




Jess Bunckek's year at EDEN ISS of the Neumayer Station III in Antarctica

• May 4, 2021: Nine weeks of darkness and temperatures down to minus 50 degrees Celsius. Under these harsh conditions of Antarctica, NASA and the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) have begun a joint series of experiments on vegetable cultivation techniques for use on the Moon and Mars. Until early 2022, NASA guest scientist Jess Bunchek will research how future astronauts could grow lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and herbs, using as little time and energy as possible. To this end, she will be working at DLR's EDEN ISS Antarctic greenhouse, where she will put greenhouse technologies and plant varieties to the test. She is also recording any effects the greenhouse and its yield have on the isolated hibernation crew in the perpetual ice. Bunchek is part of the 10-person overwintering crew on Neumayer Station III, operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) 2)

a) NASA guest researcher Jess Bunchek will conduct research in the Antarctic greenhouse until early 2022.

b) The new research mission focuses on crop yield, plant irrigation, microbiology, crew time and effects on the well-being of the overwintering team.

c) The YouTube livestream for the DLR press conference 'EDEN ISS – Antarctic Greenhouse Mission 2021' will take place on 4 May 2021 at 16:00 CEST.

d) Focus: Space, food supply of the future.

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Figure 6: Jess Bunchek holding her first harvest (image credit: AWI, Ort)

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Figure 7: Jess Bunchek harvesting salad (image credit: AWI, Baden)

First harvest – Lettuce, mustard greens, radishes and herbs

- "The polar night will soon begin here on the Antarctic Ekström Ice Shelf. With the nine other members of the overwintering crew, it almost feels like we are alone on another planet," says Bunchek. "In this hostile world it's fascinating to see the greenery thrive without soil and under artificial light." Bunchek is a botanist from the Kennedy Space Center, where she has primarily supported the VEGGIE project on the International Space Station (ISS). She was able to sow the first seeds in recent weeks, following a technical reconditioning of the EDEN ISS platform conducted by her and the DLR team. The first harvest, which included lettuce, mustard greens, radishes and various herbs, followed a few days ago.

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Figure 8: EDEN ISS Antarctic greenhouse. In addition to lettuces and herbs, kohlrabi (left) and broccoli (right) also thrive without soil under artificial light in the EDEN ISS Antarctic greenhouse (image credit: DLR / NASA / Bunchek)

NASA seeds and new nutrient supply system

- The EDEN ISS greenhouse uses particularly robust varieties that were selected by the EDEN ISS Project team and from experiments at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and as part of the VEGGIE project on the ISS. The DLR/NASA mission also aims to record and compare the growth and yield of the crop varieties under the conditions of the Antarctic greenhouse. An additional focus will be studying which microbes thrive in the greenhouse alongside the cultivated plants.

- NASA will also be testing a plant watering concept in the EDEN Module that can operate in u-gravity settings, like the ISS. The system contains the water and delivers it to the plants by a passive method. "This will provide a side-by-side comparison with the aeroponically grown plants of EDEN ISS" says Ray Wheeler, plant physiologist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In aeroponic irrigation, the roots of the plants without soil are regularly sprayed with a nutrient solution.

Crew time – a precious commodity

- Sowing, harvesting, tending, cleaning, maintaining, calibrating, repairing and conducting scientific activities. Bunchek records every second of her activities in the Antarctic greenhouse with a special time-recording eight-sided die, as crew time will be a precious commodity on future missions to the Moon and Mars. "In an initial test run of the greenhouse during the 2018 mission, we found that operations still took too much time," explains EDEN ISS project leader Daniel Schubert from the DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen. "Now we are working on optimizing processes and procedures. We have learned a lot about operating a greenhouse under extreme conditions. We're applying all this during the current joint DLR/NASA mission." In addition to the crew's time, the focus is on their well-being. The overwinterers regularly answer questions about their eating habits or how the plants affect their mood. "We hope to increase our understanding of having plants and fresh food for crews in remote, isolated settings like Neumayer III and ultimately for space" says Wheeler.

Eight months in isolation

- On 19 January, Jess Bunchek reached the Antarctic continent on board the research vessel Polarstern. Since 19 March, the 10-person overwintering crew has been on their own at Neumayer Station III. "EDEN ISS is an asset for the crew in many ways," says Tim Heitland, Medical Coordinator and Operations Manager at AWI. "I know from my own overwintering experience just how much you can begin to miss fresh produce. It's not just about the taste, but also the smells, the colors and the fascinating fact that something can grow in this inhospitable environment. That's why there are always volunteers in the overwintering teams to help cultivate and harvest the plants." The polar night at Neumayer Station III begins this year on 21 May, and the first rays of sunlight will not reach the station again until 23 July. Researchers for the summer season and new supplies will end the isolation of this year’s overwintering crew around the beginning of November.

- The activities at the EDEN ISS Antarctic greenhouse can be followed on social media using the hashtag #MadeInAntarctica. The Antarctic greenhouse has Facebook and Instagram accounts, as well as a flickr image gallery. Jess Bunchek also writes about her personal experiences of the Antarctica mission in the dedicated DLR blog. A new tool will let you see the EDEN ISS plants in Antarctica. Each day the updated images from 34 cameras will make it possible to see how the plants are growing.

EDEN ISS: Food supply of the future

- Global food production is one of the key societal challenges of the 21st century. An increasing world population and the simultaneous upheavals caused by climate change call for new ways of crop cultivation – even in regions with unfavorable climatic conditions. For deserts and areas with low temperatures, as well as for missions to the Moon and Mars, a closed greenhouse enables harvests that are independent of weather, sun and season, as well as lower water consumption and eliminates the need for pesticides and insecticides. As part of the EDEN ISS project, such a greenhouse of the future is being subjected to long-term testing under the extreme conditions found in Antarctica. In the first extensive overwintering research campaign in 2018, the greenhouse produced a total of 268 kg of food in nine and a half months with just 12.5 m2 of available space. This included 67 kg of cucumbers, 117 kg of lettuce and 50 kg of tomatoes. The research has allowed for the development of a greenhouse concept for future space missions.

• March 9, 2021: The EDEN ISS greenhouse, developed by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), has been in Antarctica since 2018. It was designed to conduct research into food production in deserts and cold regions, as well as exploring the possibility of growing fresh food in the hostile conditions of the Moon or Mars. Plant scientist Jess Bunchek from NASA's Kennedy Space Center is spending a year in the eternal ice as a DLR guest researcher. In this blog, she will report about her exciting research on Earth's coldest continent. 3)

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Figure 9: Neumayer III Station in Antarctica (image credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek)

- In a typical year, you can reach the Neumayer III Station in Antarctica by air, but as we all know, the last year has been anything but typical. With countries restricting travellers and flights being cancelled, the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), which runs Neumayer, came up with an alternative: go by ship. The icebreaker RV Polarstern (German for 'polar star') already travels annually from Germany to Neumayer to resupply the station, so adding a few passengers to this year's transit was a logical and COVID-safe solution for AWI.

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Figure 10: Photo of the Icebreaker RV Polarstern (image credit: DLR/NASA, Jess Bunchek)

- Our month-long voyage started with a storm in the English Channel and Bay of Biscay. The ship cut through 16-foot (5-meter) waves in spectacular fashion, although inside the ship, many of us greenhorns looked a bit, well, green. Fortunately we found ourselves in calmer seas with beautiful weather by the time we passed the Canary Islands, which gave us the chance to fully appreciate the purpose and privilege of our voyage. That we are still able to overwinter while the world has come to a halt at the hands of the pandemic has not been lost on us in the slightest.

- The temperature quickly dropped as we approached the Antarctic Circle at 60°S, and soon we found ourselves in polar day where the sun does not set, as well as sea ice. The latter was no problem for Polarstern, which as an icebreaker is designed to navigate such an environment while yielding to the locals. In the Antarctic, orcas are the greatest predatorial threat to seals and penguins, so much so that they would rather stay on the ice as we pass by than risk diving into the water. On multiple occasions, the large ship had to navigate around unphased, sunbathing seals.

- We awoke early one morning parked next to the Ekström Ice Shelf. Welcome to Antarctica! The next step was to unload Polarstern of passengers and cargo and move to Neumayer, still 12 miles (20 km) away. In the absence of buildings, trees or mountains, our landmarks were now the colossal icebergs in nearby Atka Bay.

- Navigating polar regions goes beyond the design of an icebreaker ship. In thick sea ice, helicopters are crucial for surveying the surrounding area and determining the best route for Polarstern. They can also quickly run temperature-critical and fragile supplies – such as seeds for EDEN ISS – from the ship to Neumayer while checking the long-term condition of the shelf ice.

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Figure 11: A helicopter taking off from the stern of Polarstern, docked next to the shelf ice (image credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek)

- However, all other transit is done on the ice. Snowmobiles are the ideal option for shorter, lighter trips, while PistenBully plows are better for heavy-duty jobs like hauling, plowing or longer travel.

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Figure 12: The snowmobile fleet parked next to Polarstern during cargo unloading (image credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek)

- Without further ado, I present AWI's 41st overwintering team. Our 10-person crew consists of mechanic and electrical technician support, a cook, an IT and radio specialist, a surgeon, and scientists in the areas of geophysics, atmospheric chemistry, meteorology, and an agronomist/astrobotanist (yours truly). Although my area of research focuses on supplying fresh crops to the crew while testing capabilities for space crop production, I would be remiss to not mention the role that marine & polar science play in climate change research.

- Traveling the length of the Atlantic Ocean reinforced a seemingly obvious but noteworthy theme: our oceans and poles are humbling and marvelous. From the dark hues of icy, choppy waters to the velvet-smooth waves and warm, vibrant blue-greens near the Equator to the frozen shelf ice that the ten of us will call home for the next year, our Earth sure is a beautiful planet.

- Now settled in at the station, we are busy preparing the EDEN ISS greenhouse for the upcoming season. There is plenty more to come, so stay tuned!

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Figure 13: The 2021 overwintering team in front of Polarstern upon arrival in Antarctica. Back row L-R: mechanical engineer Florian Koch, chef Tanguy Doron, station leader and surgeon Peter Jonczyk, meteorologist Paul Ockenfuss, electrical technician Markus Baden, geophysicist Lorenz Marten. Front row L-R: atmospheric chemist Linda Ort, IT and radio specialist Theresa Thoma, geophysicist Timo Dornhoefer, agronomist/astrobotanist Jess Bunchek (image credit: AWI/Tim Heitland)

- Jess Bunchek is a plant scientist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. At the beginning of 2021, she began her one-year residency at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s (AWI) Neumayer Station III as a guest researcher at the DLR Institute of Space Systems. As part of the 10-person overwinter crew, she works at DLR's EDEN ISS greenhouse, located 400 meters from the station. The aim of the greenhouse is to research vegetable cultivation using artificial light and without soil for application in future space missions to the Moon and Mars.

- Jess Bunchek studied botany for her Bachelor of Science and minored in German at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. She received her Master of Science in Agronomy from Pennsylvania State University in 2018 and was a NASA Space Grant Consortium fellow. She joined the NASA Veggie project at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida in September 2018, first as an intern and then as a contractor, focusing on supporting astronauts growing plants on the International Space Station. She has been a guest researcher at DLR since 2020.

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Figure 14: EDEN ISS, the garden center of Jess Bunchek for 2021, just 400 m away from the Neumayer III Station, developed by DLR in 2018 (photo credit: DLR)

• December 14, 2020: This year, the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Neumayer Station III will be exclusively supplied by sea. The research vessel Polarstern will transport– as usual – materials and fuel to the Antarctic. However, due to the coronavirus, this season all the staff who will work at the station will also travel to the Southern Continent by ship. 4)

- Instead of flying from South Africa, this year’s Antarctic expedition participants will set off on their voyage from Bremerhaven. They will leave from the homeport Bremerhaven on 20 December 2020, and sail non-stop on board Polarstern to Atka Bay in the Antarctic. There, from the mooring at the ice edge, passengers and supplies will travel the final ten kilometers to the Neumayer Station III by snowcat and snowmobile. “This direct journey is just one of a whole catalogue of measures we have put in place to prevent the introduction of the coronavirus to the Antarctic and the Neumayer Station,” says Dr Tim Heitland. The former Neumayer overwinterer works as a medical coordinator at the Logistics Department of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), where he is responsible e.g. for training the overwintering team.

- “We believe that we have found the best possible way to exchange the overwintering teams and also to bring the technical and scientific staff for the service and maintenance of the station and the observatories to the Antarctic,” explains Heitland, who will be in charge of the journey to the Antarctic on board Polarstern and will also take over as head of the expedition at the Neumayer Station. Over the past year, the entire AWI logistics team learned the coronavirus-specific precautionary measures that need to be taken for expeditions and the journeys involved, when they managed to keep the MOSAiC expedition with the Polarstern in the Central Arctic running despite the global travel restrictions. As in the summer, individual quarantining and several coronavirus tests are among the measures necessary prior to the start of the expedition. PCR testing equipment is available on board the research vessel and at the Antarctic station, and the hospital and pharmacies have been equipped with additional instruments, medicines and medical oxygen in case of emergencies. According to Heitland: “We have done our homework, and so I can now look forward to the Antarctic season without any additional worries. Despite all the precautionary measures, it’s still a polar expedition, and the remoteness alone demands respect and prudence on the part of all participants.”

- Future station leader and physician at the Neumayer Station, Peter Jonczyk, feels that he and his colleagues are well prepared, but is worried about his friends and family, who aren’t living in a coronavirus-free environment: “In terms of the coronavirus, once we set off, we overwinterers will no longer have to worry about ourselves, but we’ll still be worrying about our friends and families at home. As such, we’re all the more delighted that even on board Polarstern we’ll have daily digital contact. That makes this exceptional situation easier to live with.”

- Since 2002 the Alfred Wegener Institute has used the DROMLAN network, which flies teams for several Antarctic stations in Queen Maud Land to the Russia’s Novo Airbase in the Antarctic on long-distance flights via Cape Town, in South Africa. From there, they travel on to the individual stations with smaller planes. Before the network was set up, the usual route was with Polarstern. “Combined with the quarantine beforehand, the roughly month-long outward journey means that the season for us is longer,” reports Heitland. The approach to Atka Bay is planned for around 20 January 2021. Then the 25 passengers can begin their work at the Neumayer Station: AWI researchers will service the observatories for air chemistry, geophysics and meteorology and discuss the long-term measurements with the old and new overwintering teams. The technicians will ensure that the station remains functional in terms of infrastructure.

- Following the 2018 overwintering mission, now for the second time, a crewmember for the DLR Antarctic greenhouse EDEN ISS will also take part. On the 2021 team, plant scientist Jess Bunchek from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will spend a year on the icy continent as a guest researcher from the German Aerospace Center (DLR), cultivating vegetables without soil and under artificial light. This collaboration is intended to contribute towards the design of a future greenhouse for the Moon or Mars, and help define the requirements for supporting the astronaut crew.

- Meanwhile, Polarstern is travelling to Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands. There a new crew and an international scientific team for an oceanographic research expedition in the Weddell Sea will come on board. For these expedition participants, too, there will be strict protection concepts with quarantining and tests. On her return from this expedition to the Antarctic, the ship will collect the old Neumayer overwintering and technical teams, as well as the researchers. On the short journey back to Port Stanley, there are also memories of the ‘good old days’: huddling together is the order of the day. In order to be able to take the passengers from Neumayer, three instead of the now usual two people have to squeeze into each of the science quarters. But the quarters were always designed to accommodate three each, and most of the research will be completed, so the passengers should be able to cope for the few days until the ship drops anchor in the Falklands. From there, most of them will fly home, while Polarstern, with a small group of researchers, will continue on her return journey to Bremerhaven, where the Antarctic season will end in April.



1) ”NASA guest scientist set to spend a year at DLR’s EDEN ISS Antarctic green­house for the first time,” DLR News, 16 December 2020, URL: https://www.dlr.de/content/en/articles
/news/2020/04/20201216_plant-cultivation-on-the-moon-and-mars.html

2) Start of a new series of tests for plant cultivation on the Moon and Mars,”DLR, 4 May 2021, URL: https://www.dlr.de/content/en/articles/news/2021/02/
20210504_nasa-seeds-germinate-in-dlr-s-eden-iss-greenhouse.html

3) Jess Bunchek, ”EDEN ISS - Growing vegetables in the eternal ice: Coming to Antarctica,” DLR, 9 March 2021, URL: https://www.dlr.de/blogs/en/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-5893/9577_read-1162/

4) ”Back to the Roots of Antarctic Research,” AWI Press Service, 14 December 2020, URL: https://www.awi.de/en/about-us/service/press/single-view
/zurueck-zu-den-wurzeln-der-antarktis-forschung.html



The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).

Jess Bunckek's year at EDEN ISS    References    Back to top