Kennedy Scientist Journeys to End of Earth for Plant Research: Astrobotanist Log 1

Neumayer III Station in Antarctica.
Neumayer III Station in Antarctica. Photo credit: DLR/NASA/Jess Bunchek

After training for months in Germany, Jess Bunchek, a plant scientist with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, departed Dec. 20, 2020, for the German Neumayer III Station in Antarctica, operated by the Alfred Wegner Institute (AWI). Working at the EDEN ISS greenhouse managed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Bunchek will research growing food crops in a remote, harsh setting, similar to what astronauts experience in space. Here is her account of the journey to EDEN ISS.

The 2021 overwintering team in front of Polarstern upon arrival in Antarctica.
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 engineer 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. Photo credit: AWI/Tim Heitland

In a typical year, you can reach the Neumayer III Station in Antarctica by air, but as we all know, the past year has been anything but typical. With countries restricting travelers and flights being cancelled, the institute that 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.

Icebreaker RV Polarstern that transported the team from Germany to Antarctica on a non-stop trip.
Icebreaker RV Polarstern that transported the team from Germany to Antarctica on a non-stop trip. 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 rookies looked a bit, well, green from seasickness. Fortunately, we found ourselves in calmer seas with beautiful weather by the time we passed the Grand 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 due to the pandemic has not been lost on us in the slightest.

The temperature quickly dropped as we approached the Antarctic Circle at 60 degrees south latitude, and soon we found ourselves in polar day where the Sun does not set, and sea ice is common. The latter was no problem for Polarstern, which is designed to navigate such an environment. In the Antarctic, orcas are the greatest predatorial threat to seals and penguins, which prefer to stay on the ice as we pass by than risk diving into the water. On multiple occasions, the large ship had to navigate around sunbathing seals.

We awoke early one morning parked next to the Ekstrøm 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 also can 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.

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

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 me, an agronomist and astrobotanist. 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 and 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 10 of us will call home for the next year, our Earth sure is a beautiful planet.

Now, we’re preparing the EDEN ISS greenhouse for the upcoming season, and I will post again soon.

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