Greenhouse in Antarctica survives winter for 1st time

A greenhouse in Antarctica that is partly maintained remotely from Germany has survived through the polar winter for the first time.

Regularly withstanding temperatures below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius), the greenhouse provided herbs, lettuce and other vegetables to 10 people who were riding out the winter in the remote station, called the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Neumayer Station III. It’s the first time the greenhouse operated through the winter. “After more than half a year of operation in Antarctica, the self-sufficient greenhouse concept appears to be effective for climatically demanding regions on Earth, as well as for future manned missions to the moon and Mars,” DLR officials said in the statement.

“The harvests are now so plentiful that some of it does not always make it straight to the table, and we now have the luxury of spreading out our consumption of some refrigerated lettuce and herbs over several days,” Paul Zabel, a DLR researcher who works with EDEN ISS, said in the statement. “The overwintering team members are always looking forward to their next fresh meal.”

From a space exploration perspective, the most interesting aspect of this story is that, when the weather was too hostile for its Antarctic maintainer to reach it, the greenhouse was then maintained remotely from Germany, for up to three consecutive days. Clearly hands-on maintenance is necessary for such a facility, but to design it so that remote maintenance can occur is a technical capability that space-colonists are definitely going to want to have.

Mold on ISS plants

In December four of seven zinnia plants in a greenhouse on ISS became sickly or died because they were receiving too much water and developed mold.

The story doesn’t really tell us much, but this paragraph reveals I think some fundamental management problems in the way NASA is running the station:

ISS commander and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly reported the mold to Mission Control Dec. 22 just as Veggie principal investigator Trent Smith was trying to manage the water problem. In pictures, Smith saw water on the plants a few days before. He told Discovery News he was trying to relay a command from NASA’s station operations team to increase fan speed in Veggie, but the mold developed before the command could be put through. One solution was, on Christmas Eve, to designate Kelly “commander” of Veggie. Kelly now has more autonomy to make changes to Veggie’s conditions if he feels the plants need it.

The scientist noticed a problem but was unable to cut through the communications bureaucracy to talk to the astronauts so that changes could be made quickly. Meanwhile, the astronauts on board ISS had not been given the freedom to make common sense changes themselves. The result is that some of the plants died.

The solution, to give an astronaut more “autonomy”, is one that the Russians learned a long time ago on their Mir space station. It was also a lesson NASA learned even longer ago on Skylab. Moreover, when astronauts are finally flying interplanetary spaceships to the planets with greenhouses just like this, they will have to have that autonomy, no matter what rules NASA establishes. It seems amazing to me that NASA is still learning this lesson now.

One more thought: It is not really a problem that the scientist had trouble reaching the astronauts quickly. In fact, it probably indicates an area of management that NASA is handling well. Communications from the ground up to ISS can be a major problem, as everyone wants to talk to the astronauts and if NASA didn’t control that communications the astronauts would never have time to do anything. Thus, placing limits on that communications makes sense, though once again it also requires that the astronauts be given a great deal of freedom to make their own decisions, as they might not be able to talk to the right experts whenever necessary.

Russian greenhouse on ISS ungoes upgrade

The Russian greenhouse on ISS underwent an upgrade today.

The onboard greenhouse was dismantled in April last year, as a need arose to replace the outdated control unit, recalled head of the Rasteniya-2 (Plants-2) experiment, chief of the laboratory of the Institute of Medico-Biological Problems (IMBP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) Vladimir Sychev. In early 2010, the crop area of the orbital garden was extended twice – the second leaf chamber was delivered to the ISS in which the crew managed to harvest the Mizuna lettuce, before the greenhouse was dismantled. Now, the cosmonauts will plant in these two chambers different cultures – super-dwarf wheat and dwarf tomatoes.

As I described in detail in Leaving Earth, the Russians have decades of experience in growing plants in space, with the goal of not only providing a natural system to recycle the station’s atmosphere, but also giving the astronauts a morale-boosting activity (gardening) that also gives them something tasty to eat. Though the engineering has still not made it possible to germinate seeds in weightlessness and then have grow there, this will be an absolute requirement if humans are ever to travel to the planets and beyond to the stars.

Have global warming scientists admitted that carbon dioxide is not the main greenhouse gas?

In a paper published on Saturday in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres of the American Geophysical Union, scientists from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (where scientists have generally been strong advocates of human-caused global warming) outlined the key atmospheric molecules that contribute to the greenhouse effect. Key quote from the abstract:

We find that water vapor is the dominant contributor (∼50% of the effect), followed by clouds (∼25%) and then CO2 with ∼20%. All other absorbers play only minor roles.

The scientists also noted that even if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were to double, these percentages would not change significantly.

Does this mean that carbon dioxide is a minor player in creating global warming? This remains unclear. First, the above research is essentially only modeling, not actual data. Second, the scientists themselves note that the interplay of any two of these molecules (such as water and carbon dioxide or water and cloudiness) can have a greater effect than just one molecule alone, which makes these percentages by themselves incomplete.

Nonetheless, these results are important politically. These global warming scientists have placed themselves on record as admitting that cloudiness appears more significant that carbon dioxide in creating the greenhouse effect. And since the combination of water and clouds can have an even greater influence on the climate than either alone, the scientists are also admitting that water is by far the most important greenhouse molecule. Any future climate models as well as political action must take this fact into consideration.