Biosphere 2
Biosphere 2

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Biosphere 2 is an American Earth system science research facility located in Oracle, Arizona. It was originally constructed between 1987 and 1991 and has been owned by the University of Arizona since 2011. Its mission is to serve as a center for research, outreach, teaching, and lifelong learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe. It is a 3.14-acre structure originally built to be an artificial, materially closed ecological system, or vivarium. It remains the largest closed system ever created.

Biosphere 2 was originally meant to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space. It was designed to explore the web of interactions within life systems in a structure with different areas based on various biological biomes. In addition to the several biomes and living quarters for people, there was an agricultural area and workspace to study the interactions between humans, farming, technology and the rest of nature as a new kind of laboratory for the study of the global ecology. Its mission was a two-year closure experiment with a crew of eight humans (“biospherians”). Long-term it was seen as a precursor to gain knowledge about the use of closed biospheres in space colonization. As an experimental ecological facility, it allowed the study and manipulation of a mini biospheric system without harming Earth’s biosphere. Its seven biome areas were a 20,000 sq ft rainforest, a 9,100 sq ft ocean with a coral reef, a 4,800 sq ft mangrove wetlands, a 14,000 sq ft savannah grassland, a 15,000 sq ft fog desert, and two anthropogenic biomes: a 27,000 sq ft agricultural system and a human habitat with living spaces, laboratories and workshops. Below ground was an extensive part of the technical infrastructure. Heating and cooling water circulated through independent piping systems and passive solar input through the glass space frame panels covering most of the facility, and electrical power was supplied into Biosphere 2 from an onsite natural gas energy center.

Biosphere 2 was only used twice for its original intended purposes as a closed-system experiment: once from 1991 to 1993, and the second time from March to September 1994. Both attempts, though heavily publicized, ran into problems including low amounts of food and oxygen, die-offs of many animals and plants included in the experiment (though this was anticipated since the project used a strategy of deliberately “species-packing” anticipating losses as the biomes developed), group dynamic tensions among the resident crew, outside politics and a power struggle over management and direction of the project. Nevertheless, the closure experiments set world records in closed ecological systems, agricultural production, health improvements with the high nutrient and low-calorie diet the crew followed, and insights into the self-organization of complex biomic systems and atmospheric dynamics. The second closure experiment achieved total food sufficiency and did not require an injection of oxygen.

In June 1994, during the middle of the second experiment, the managing company, Space Biosphere Ventures, was dissolved, and the facility was left in limbo. Columbia University assumed management of the facility in 1995 and used it to run experiments until 2003. It then looked in danger of being demolished to make way for housing and retail stores but was taken over for research by the University of Arizona in 2007. The University of Arizona took full ownership of the structure in 2011.

 

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