A Set From A Sci-Fi Movie? No it is Biosphere 2

Today (22nd February 2015) entailed a trip up into the mountains to visit Biosphere2 – another part UA Science.  It felt more like a trip to a Sci-Fi movie, but we soon learnt that this was really one big laboratory…

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Biosphere entrance

Biosphere2 is located around 30 miles north of Tucson, so it was a car ride away.  I was surprised that the buildings and greenhouses only became visible when we were actually on site.

 Biosphere Greenhouse

Biosphere2 exists ‘To serve as a centre for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the Universe.’

This board gave an overview of the facility.

Biosphere board

Big Science

Site map

Site map

When we got to see the buildings it was like a cross between the Eden Project (on steroids) and a sci-fi movie – very striking.

Biosphere panorama

Biosphere panorama

We first watched a video narrated by Caroline Porco.  It was excellent.  (While watching it I couldn’t help but think about the things that Huw James had been teaching us about presenting to camera – Caroline really is a pro!)  We then joined a guided tour and were introduced to the site and its history.  It had been the home to Native Americans, ranchers and miners.  Motorola and University of Arizona ran a conference centre there in the 1960s and 1970s.  But the most interesting developments started in 1984 when Space Biospheres Ventures bought the site and in 1986 started constructing the current facility.  Its aim was to research and develop self-sustaining space-colonisation technology.  We were told that at the time there was significant suspicion about a private sector organisation undertaking such research.  (This surprised me as I thought the US had high regard for private sector innovation.)  The budget was $35m, but it actually cost $135m! – it is not just the public sector that has difficulty with large innovative capital projects!

Two Human Missions took place between 1991 and 1994 (and we later had the chance to see where the occupants lived, sealed from the world).   There were subsequently a few changes of ownership before the UofA was given the facility in 2011 (having managed it for a few years previously).  As a result new and interesting scientific experiments are being developed across the site.

Inside biosphere2

Inside biosphere2

What makes the facility special is the ability to control all aspects of an environment.  (This takes a lot of engineering, systems and pipework.)  Parameters can then be varied and the consequences observed and measured.  An example is seeing how changes in CO2 emissions and the subsequent changes in atmosphere affect the ocean – very helpful for global warming. Other marine research is also undertaken (and we got to walk amongst the tanks).

What struck me when we first went into the glasshouse was the change in humidity and the smells (as well as getting dripped on frequently!).





I must admit to not following everything the guide was saying – the amplification was unfortunately only effective in one direction.  (As an aside, from a communicating science effectiveness perspective it might have been better not to have had so much information conveyed in one place and with little humour.  Shorter, snappier bursts of information would probably have retained attention better.)

Living Quarters

Living Quarters

The Human Mission experiment, where 4 men and 4 women lived in the sealed Biosphere, had interesting results.  The experiment started with a set of plants, animals and organisms and a fixed amount of water and oxygen.  Changes were monitored as time passed.  In some quarters it was deemed a failure, and the second mission was closed prematurely.  But much useful information was obtained from the Missions eg analysis during and after the missions of the physical, psychological and social elements provided important information on how physical factors (eg lower oxygen levels) led to changes in psychological well-being and social interaction for the occupants.

I was fascinated to see the actual living quarters (and use one of their restrooms).  I’m not sure if I would have passed the stringent entry requirements, but if I had then I would (like it seems many of the occupants did) have needed to regularly escape to the privacy of my pod!

TubeThe exhibitions covering the Water and Life Experiments were fascinating.

And finally, the smell of these flowers was amazing, and on closer inspection some little wildlife was thoroughly enjoying them too.


Does my bum look big in this?

The plan for the evening was to meet up with students from the Astroclub for a meal and then go to the Campus Observatory for some viewing.  We managed one from two, as it was cloudy…  It was very interesting chatting to a couple of first years (Marianne and Jenny) about the differences and similarities between our University systems.  Their education seems broader, at least to start with, and longer.  But what stood out, and what was cited by the girls as the main reason for them applying to UofA, was the opportunities that undergraduates have for both working in outreach (Planetarium or Observatory) and for assisting the professionals with research even early on in their University careers.  This was to be further demonstrated later in the week.

It is probably best to draw a veil over the end of the evening, suffice to say that there proved to be nowhere serving ice cream late on a Sunday night.  But we did get lots of exercise that evening (Mike calculated about 4.5 miles!!)



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