Category Archives: Science News

EDEN ISS greenhouse sets sail for Antarctica

A scientist inspects plants in the EDEN ISS greenhouse. Photo: DLR, CC-BY 3.0

A scientist inspects plants in the EDEN ISS greenhouse. Photo: DLR, CC-BY 3.0

How do you grow vegetables in Antarctica? In a seriously high-tech greenhouse, that’s how.

The EDEN ISS greenhouse, designed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and international partners, is a self-sufficient plant-growing system with a host of high-tech features. Mounted on a high platform and entered by a special airlock, this is nothing like the greenhouse in your garden.

EDEN ISS is designed to grow plants in inhospitable environments without soil or life-giving sunlight. To allow them to grow without soil, the plants are automatically sprayed at regular intervals with a water-nutrient mixture. Special lamps, temperature control and air filters all provide just the right conditions for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and more.

A trial run in Bremen (Germany) earlier this year produced a rich harvest of fresh vegetables and herbs, and now the aim is to test crop cultivation in the hostile conditions of the Antarctic winter.

EDEN ISS greenhouse in the Antarctic. Photo: DLR, CC-BY 3.0

EDEN ISS greenhouse in the Antarctic. Photo: DLR, CC-BY 3.0

The EDEN ISS container set off on its 11-week journey from the Port of Hamburg to the Ekström ice shelf on 8 October 2017. Its final destination is Neumayer Station III, run by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI).

So why put so much effort into cultivating fresh fruit and vegetables in harsh climate conditions? There are two main reasons.

Firstly, to address future needs on Earth in the face of a rapidly growing world population and the impacts of climate change on food production. Secondly, to develop methods to provide fresh plant foods for human spaceflight, including future missions to the Moon and Mars.

Starting in December, DLR scientist Paul Zabel will spend a year at Neumayer III running the greenhouse and taking care of the plants. As well as providing important insights for scientific research, it will also put tasty fresh vegetables on the table for the research station team!

Read the DLR press release here and check out the dedicated EDEN ISS website here.

Gravitational waves, cryo-electron microscopy and circadian clocks: Nobel Prize winners announced

As I write, the winners of all but one of the 2017 Nobel Prizes have been announced.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 will be presented to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”. The first direct detection of a gravitational wave in September 2015 was a landmark event, confirming Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity and launching the field of gravitational-wave astronomy. Read the official news items from MIT and Caltech.

The merging of two black holes produces a ripple in the fabric of spacetime known as a gravitational wave. Source: ESA - C. Carreau

The merging of two black holes produces a ripple in the fabric of spacetime known as a gravitational wave. Source: ESA – C. Carreau

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2017 has been awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for the development of cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution. Cryo-electron microscopy is a revolutionary technique in biochemistry which allows researchers to produce detailed three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. To find out why this is so significant, read the official press release here.

The Nobel Prize 2017 in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm. Although scientists have known for a long time that plants, animals and humans have an internal biological clock that anticipates and adapts to daily changes in the environment, the three Nobel laureates have now explained how this works at a molecular level. Read the full details about these discoveries and the winners here.

Of the winners in these categories, both Rainer Weiss (professor emeritus of physics at MIT) and Joachim Frank (professor of biological sciences at Columbia University) were born in Germany.

Although the Nobel Prizes honour individuals, scientific discovery today is always a team effort, involving hundreds or even thousands of individuals. Rainer Weiss acknowledged this by saying: “The discovery has been the work of a large number of people, many of whom played crucial roles. I view receiving this [award] as sort of a symbol of the various other people who have worked on this.”

Helmholtz Association launches MOSES Earth observation system



Over the next five years, the Helmholtz Association – Germany’s largest scientific organisation – is to implement a flexible new Earth observation system known as MOSES (Modular Observation Solutions for Earth Systems).

MOSES is designed to measure short-term events such as heatwaves and heavy rainfall and track their long-term and large-scale impacts on Earth and environmental systems. The project uses an integrated approach, gathering data across different Earth compartments – atmosphere, land, coast, ocean and cryosphere.

Initially, MOSES will allow researchers to study four types of event: heatwaves, hydrologic extremes, ocean eddies and permafrost thaw, using ‘modules’ made up of different sensor and observing systems. The observation campaigns require highly mobile observing systems to spot and track these short-term dynamic events. The modules rely on a wide range of platforms, from terrestrial and ocean observatories to autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and drones.

Researchers hope that the data provided by MOSES will allow them to predict the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of these events with greater certainty.

Following test campaigns, MOSES is scheduled to go into regular operation in 2022. It will be coordinated by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig.

For detailed information about MOSES, visit the GEOMAR website.

Goodbye Cassini

Source: NASA

Cassini at Saturn. Source: NASA

At 12:55 BST today, NASA’s Cassini probe transmitted its final signal to Earth before plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn. It’s the end of an incredibly exciting and important mission.

Back in 2004, when Cassini first arrived at Saturn after a seven-year voyage, I translated some educational material for the European Space Agency (ESA), which used the Cassini-Huygens mission as a focal point to teach school children about the solar system. Since then, as well as inspiring children and adults around the world, the mission has generated a wealth of data about the Saturn system. It has ventured into the previously unexplored space between the planet and its rings and successfully landed the Huygens module on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan – the first landing ever achieved in the outer solar system.

A glance at social media shows that I’m not the only one feeling a little emotional about Cassini’s final moments.

The probe was commanded to destroy itself by diving into Saturn’s atmosphere to avoid the risk of contaminating any of the planet’s moons which could have the potential to harbour microbial life.

Bye, Cassini – it’s been an amazing 20 years.

Check out the official NASA Cassini page.