Biosphere 2

Earth is the original biosphere, containing complicated webs of plants, animals, and nutrient cycling.  Despite hundreds of years of study, many of these processes remain mysterious.  If humans are to colonize another moon or planet, we must be able to have a viable closed ecosystem. This was the basis for the Biosphere 2 –  run a properly controlled and closed experiment with measurable results, to examine the capacity of an enclosed biome to support human life.

Sunrise at the Biosphere 2 grounds
The Biosphere 2 is located in the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson, Arizona.

Philanthropist Ed Bass, the heir of a fortune generated out of the oil industry, agreed to sponsor the Biosphere 2, and spent $200 million on the project (it’s estimated it would cost $1.5 billion if this were done today).  Construction lasted 3.5 years, and was completed in 1991 in time for the first mission.  During this time plant species from all over the world were imported to the biosphere, and crops were planted in preparation for the crew.

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The Biosphere 2 facility.

In what is still regarded as one of the biggest failures of science in the modern era, on September 26th, 1991, eight “biospherians” entered the biosphere and had the door sealed shut behind them.  They would be responsible for growing and cooking all their own food, as well as tending to the environment of the Biosphere 2 itself. Raising food for eight people inside the biosphere proved to be an exhausting task, with biospherians working over twelve hours a day, never able to escape from hunger. After dropping oxygen levels in the Biosphere 2 risked serious medical circumstances for the crew, the experiment “failed” when oxygen was injected into its atmosphere.  This occurred twice more before the end of the experiment in 1993.

The second mission began in March, 1994, after actions had been taken to correct the deficiencies of the first experiment. Though the mission was proceeding smoothly inside the Biosphere 2, Ed Bass had become concerned with cost overruns, and hired an investment banker, Steve Bannon, to fix the problem.  In an odd circumstance of scientific sabotage, conspiracy, and political intrigue,  the experiment ended prematurely.  The management company Space Biosphere Ventures dissolved, and today the Biosphere 2 is owned by the University of Arizona and functions as a research facility.

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Despite it’s unlikely origins as the scientific boondoggle of a wealthy space exploration enthusiast, the Biosphere 2 is remarkable facility and its history is unjustly maligned.  I recently had the privilege not just to visit the facility, but to dialogue with some of its current researchers.

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Architecturally, the building is fascinating.  The base was poured with a foot thick of concrete (2 acres!), on which steel plates were layered.  The plates were then welded together, and an additional 4 inches of concrete was poured above the steel.  Above ground over 6000 individual glass panels were installed.  The building represents the most leak-proof structure ever built, surpassing even the space station.  In order to combat pressure change inside the building, “lungs” had to be installed that could expand and contract (it’s completely shocking to witness the ceiling collapsing in towards your head).

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The 40,000 lb ceiling is on a diaphragm, and rises and falls as the pressure changes.

The Biosphere 2 also contained many different ecosystems: a rain forest, an ocean, swamplands, Savannah, and desert.  Systems were installed not just to monitor these ecosystems, but to influence them through directly controlling parameters such as wind and rainfall. To walk through the Biosphere 2 is to have the utterly confusing sensory experience of being simultaneously in a jungle and a submarine.  Synthetic scents and sounds blend with the natural.  One hears large, mechanical, repetitive noises while observing a burbling stream, ants crawling in the dirt, and water dripping from the respiring trees.

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The rain forest inside the Biosphere 2.  The towers contain scientific monitoring equipment.

The original missions of the Biosphere 2 proved a definite success, insofar as it directly contributed to the success of space exploration: insights from the biospherians’ experience were provided to NASA and aided in the development of the space station.  Regarding the seeming failures of the first experiment, it was found later that there were two factors that resulted in oxygen deprivation.  First, the concrete used was still in the curing phase, and it sucked up oxygen as it cured.  Second, the soil used was chosen in part because it had the appropriate microbial community to help balance CO2 and oxygen levels, although analysis immediately after the first mission demonstrated this to not be the case.  In 1998 the soil was tested again, and the microbial communities were found to have matured such that they would function as originally expected. As the plants have continued to grow, the ability to provide both oxygen and food has increased.  Indeed, the rain forest must be tended such that the plants won’t punch through the glass.  The Biosphere 2 has been a success from an architectural perspective as well, with the glass design being implemented in other buildings around the world.

Today the Biosphere 2 is a fully-functional research lab, examining questions such as, how does rock turn into soil?  What happens if a rain forest experiences drought?  How do plants respond to higher carbon dioxide levels?  These questions may be uniquely answered at the Biosphere 2, given its scale of operation, the quantity of sensors available, and particularly, the ability to acutely control variables such as rain input. The scientific understanding generated by the researchers at Biosphere 2 is of global importance.

Further reading: http://biosphere2.org/

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