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Mars tomatoes.

Lufthansa Cargo flies a satellite to California to cultivate tomatoes in the Earth’s orbit. The aims of the Eu:CROPIS project include at some stage feeding people on the Moon and on Mars.

It is the year 2045. In the barren, red landscape the evening meal is being served for members of the Mars station – under a sparkling canopy of stars where a trained eye can also see the scientists’ home planet. Earth. On the table is tomato salad – healthy food for space travelers. And tomatoes are a source of key vitamins and minerals. The vegetables – and that makes them so special – were not brought to Mars as you might think via a Lufthansa Cargo shuttle. They were grown there.

There is still a long way to go until a manned Mars mission can support itself with vegetables. However, basic research in that respect is now already under way. At the beginning of 2018, under the name Eu:CROPIS the German Aerospace Center (DLR) will send a satellite into space with a special load: tomato seeds, cell organisms, synthetic urine and a trickle filter.

Eu:CROPIS.

Eu:CROPIS.

Alexis von Hoensbroech, Board Member Product and Sales Lufthansa Cargo, who holds a doctoral degree in astrophysics, was in Bremen to gain first-hand knowledge of the satellite during the “planet” on-site visit.

High, hermetically sealed laboratory rooms that can only be viewed via galleries at a much higher level. The future is behind each glass pane: robot arms simulating landings on celestial bodies. Specially encased containers that test the performance of cryogenic fuel in tanks. Behind one of the square, security glass panes: the Eu:CROPIS project. Or to be more precise, Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-food Production in Space. The load is not yet on-site but the satellite, which is to house the tomato farm in space and which the space engineers are assembling here, is now almost compete.

 

 

In the satellite 16 cameras will monitor how the plants grow in two greenhouses from seeds to produce ripe tomatoes. Why tomatoes actually? “Very simple. Tomatoes can be easily recognized in the pictures,” explains Hartmut Müller. The experienced project manager at Eu:CROPIS was previously a member of the Columbus Project, Europe’s contribution to the International Space Station ISS, a multi-purpose laboratory for multi-disciplinary research in zero gravity. At Eu:CROPIS, crucial helpers are on board: microorganisms in a DLR trickle filter convert the synthetic urine into fertilizer and water.

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Manufacturing the satellite in Bremen: DLR aerospace engineer Sebastian Kottmeier explains the tasks of the various modules of the satellite, which is about one cubic meter in size, to Alexis von Hoensbroech in the clean room.

From space to the world: A cubic meter of future.

From space to the world: A cubic meter of future.

Cell organisms – so-called Euglena – from the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg protect the system against ammonia and simultaneously provide it with oxygen. LED lights simulate day and night. On Earth, the system is already up and running. Now the researchers want to find out how the tomatoes grow amid different gravitations. To that end, the Earth’s gravitational force needs to be neutralized. To bring that about the DLR experts will install the mini-greenhouses in a satellite that will orbit far above the Earth and its force of gravity at a height of 600 kilometers. For six months the satellite will rotate around its own axis at 18 revolutions per minute. This enables the scientists to replicate the Moon’s gravity (0.16 G). In the following six months, the revolutions will be increased to 30 per minute and create 0.33 G, the gravity of Mars. “We are the first to conduct such investigations,” says Müller.
In full safety clothing, Alexis von Hoensbroech asks Sebastian Kottmeier to explain the technology in the clean room. The young aerospace engineer is responsible for the coordinated production of the various systems in the project. “The satellite and its modules are extremely sensitive. 

 

 

We therefore want to reduce external influencing factors to a minimum. Only specially trained colleagues work directly on the satellite.” The system also needs to be sealed throughout the transport operation to the Vandenberg Spaceport in California. The satellite will be loaded in full while still in the clean room. Meeting the safety requirements is also a challenge: the DLR is not certified as a “Safe Sender”. Michael Aschmies, Sales Employee at Lufthansa Cargo in Bremen supports the transport operation in conjunction with forwarder ILS and has agreed on a special process with the German Federal Civil Aviation Authority (LBA) in light of the particular requirements. A certified colleague comes from Frankfurt with a mobile mass spectrometer, a so-called sniffer, and examines the consignment for hazardous goods before it is sealed. In an air suspension thermo truck the consignment is then taken from Bremen to Frankfurt. There the Eu:CROPIS satellite is carefully loaded into the freighter to Los Angeles and flown to California.

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The seals are only removed once the satellite is in the integration room in Vandenberg and has been unpacked. It is scheduled to be sent into space with a Falcon 9 rocket as early as the start of 2018. “We expect to receive the initial results while the mission is still in progress,” says Müller. The scientists are not only interested in survival in space. The results may also be of interest for mining and underwater stations, habitats in the Arctic, radiation-protected disaster areas or simply for farming and the preparation of drinking water. Alexis von Hoensbroech demonstrates his interest and asks “Why are you testing the system for both Mars and the Moon?” Müller: “The Moon is also extremely exciting. Many people believe that we know a great deal about that planet because we have been there.” Six manned American Apollo missions did indeed land on the Earth’s satellite planet in the 1960s and 1970s.

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“That is comparable with the statement that I landed on the Earth six times and am familiar with the entire planet.” If a mission were to be started on the Moon today, numerous scientists would be interested: geologists, space scientists, geophysicists and radio astronomers. “The Moon is a geological archive that goes back to the creation of the solar system. What remains out of our reach here on Earth is on the surface there,” says Müller. The Moon presents an opportunity for radio astronomers too: “There are plans to set up a telescope with a diameter of 15 kilometers to 20 kilometers on the rear side that can search to just before the Big Bang. The rear side of theMoon is the only place where that is possible because the telescope would be completely protected from the Earth’s radio waves.

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Thanks to the Helium 3 reserves on the Moon, the topic of energy production captures just as much interest as space travel tourism. In addition, the Moon could indeed serve as a base station for expeditions to Mars. Müller believes that expeditions could land on Mars in the 30s and 40s of this century. “However, we would previously set up a greenhouse and make sure nutrition is available.” Upon concluding his customer visit, Alexis von Hoensbroech posed the following question: “And where do you see airfreight in that period?” “Intercontinental provisions on an hourly basis,” says Müller, which makes the Lufthansa Cargo Board Member smile.

Photos:
Bernhard Huber
DLR