Growing food under harsh 'c;onditions; in the High Arctic could teach scientists how to feed spac
A radish grows on Devon Island
DEVON ISLAND – The Canadian Space Agency hopes to one day grow fresh vegetables on other planets.
To learn how, they're testing a robotic greenhouse at the Haughton-Mars Project, a research camp that's built on the premise that the nearby Haughton crater, formed when a meteorite smashed into the Earth millions of years ago, is a lot like the surface of Mars.
"This year we have some radishes, lettuce, beans and cucumbers," says Alain Berinstain, principal investigator for the Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse. The project is named after the famed science fiction author who wrote 2001, a Space Odyssey.
The greenhouse was built in 2002 by others at the HMP camp. In 2004, the greenhouse went online, thanks to electronic guts installed by the CSA.
This year they're fine tuning these systems, which are supposed to let the greenhouse grow crops by itself, without the help of any gardener.
The HMP team finished their season this past Aug. 14, but the space agency will monitor the greenhouse remotely through the winter, using satellite connections.
The greenhouse itself looks pretty ordinary: a 12-by-24-foot framed building, double-walled with clear, thick plastic.
It's the gadgets attached to it that stand out, which include two small wind turbines, and a set of solar panels, which charge a bank of batteries.
Six cameras monitor the inside and outside of the building. Satellite dishes transmit information to CSA headquarters outside Montreal, and to the University of Guelph and Simon Fraser University.
Computers regulate the temperature inside the greenhouse. Too cool, and heaters warm up. Too warm, and fans spin to draw in fresh air.
Water and fertilizer are dispensed to trays of seedlings, also by computer. Any settings may be tweaked by researchers from afar, via the satellite link.
There are two growing seasons: fall and spring. The greenhouse falls dormant during the winter.
But why not simply test this technology in a big freezer, and save the cost of running the project in the High Arctic? Berinstain says he hears this question a lot.
He points to the north wall, which is now heavily insulated. Only through testing at the site, he says, would they know that wall would lose far more heat than it gains.
The bitterly cold winters cause other problems. Electronic equipment often fries out in the extreme cold. One winter, when the temperature plunged to -40 C, the pilot lights blew out of the propane heaters.
Then there are polar bears, which smashed through a wall of the building two winters ago and tipped over trays of seeds.
That people will one day visit and eventually live on Mars is a foregone conclusion for the researchers here. And when that happens, they say these explorers will need to eat.
Berinstain says the greenhouse could be the next Canadarm, the robotic limb that's helped assemble the International Space Station and set satellites in orbit.
But Berinstain says technology being tested inside the greenhouse could be used by Canada's greenhouse industry, too.
He describes a future where gardeners spend more time with their wireless Blackberries than with plants.
"The greenhouse calls when there's a shortage. This kind of thing will help the greenhouse industry. It's good for gardeners in Canada."
Will this mean fresh produce for Nunavut? Well, radishes grown in the greenhouse were to be given to the camp's Inuit workers at the end of the season.
"They'll be ready before they leave," Berinstain says, "and they're delicious."