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Biosphere 2 Becomes ‘Big Science’
As you approach the turnoff to Biosphere Road, 30 miles north of Tucson on State Highway 77, you see nothing but Southern Arizona’s Sonoran desert and some odds and ends of semi-civilization. There is a rock bearing the Biosphere 2 logo. There is a flagpole. On the flagpole, in order from top to bottom, wave (1) that star-spangled banner that the current Washington administration so dislikes, (2) the Arizona Copper State star stud, and finally, the “A” flag of the University of Arizona.
Turn right (if going north). Go a few miles past cattle crossings, a copper mine, an electrical substation that has nothing to do with B2, and an empty guardhouse at the entrance to what was once Sunspace Ranch. Along the way, you might catch a glimpse of what Columbia University called “The Device” when they ran the place. End in a wooded parking lot adjacent to an entrance plaza equipped with fabric shade sails. Beware of snakes.
Just to top it off, note that Biosphere 2 offers “under the glass” tours inside the 3.14-acre biosphere facility (U of A likes to call it “The Sphere”) from 9 am to 4 pm 363 days a year. , except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, which they call “December 25.” They do tours even if it snows a little. (Biosphere 2 is 3,900 feet above mean sea level, 1,400 feet above downtown Tucson.) They do it even if the summer monsoons rage in the foothills of Catalina Mountain, where the Biosphere is located, as long as it’s considered safe. For ticket prices (about $20), you will have to call 520-838-6200. The voice is automated, so you will NOT find out that way you can get a better deal with a membership, as the B2Science website reveals. See “Links” at the end of the article.
The website also explains why physically limited people may not be able to manage the tour. Stairs are unavoidable. The footing may be uncertain. You need to watch your head. You have to watch your step. You have to watch both at the same time.
Well, it can’t be that bad. More than 100,000 visitors a year come this way, from 100 a day or less in the summer months, when tours run 1 hour and 15 minutes apart, to 900 a day in the winter, when tours start every 15 minutes. Add the ten minutes it takes to go to the starting point, and you should allocate 90 minutes to the tour, not counting potty breaks, mixing through the underwater caves to see the bottom of the artificial ocean, or visiting what was the. human habitat when Biosphere 2 was home to “biospherians”. Fifteen biospheres in two “missions” lived there under simulated space colony conditions from 1991 to 1994. There is a souvenir shop. There is a “cafe”, but its offerings are limited, as are its hours. If you’re not in a hurry, Biosphere 2 is good for 2.5 hours.
You start the tour with a 10 minute movie. Make a main call if you don’t care about the party line, because this is a political film. It instructs you the viewer that the “Sphere” is the only place where certain experiments can be done, and therefore the U of A must control the Sphere, or the world will end. You’ll hear that over and over, throughout the tour. If you question the concept, you’ll hear it again, along with the words, “I told you so,” so don’t torture the tour guide.
Look out for the signs posted everywhere proclaiming that the Biosphere is now, thanks to the University of Arizona, “Big Science.”
Be that as it may, Biosphere 2 is engineering. This becomes clear when your guide points out the details of construction, such as the triple glazing, hermetically sealed glass-and-steel structure, the cave-like air registers and massive returns, the network of rain pipes in the upper head, and the artificial ocean wave machine . The tour will include a passage through the “Technosphere”, a domain of air handlers, coolers, pumps, tanks, reverse osmosis filters, circuits and pipes. Above, you’ll notice that the rainforest might operate at 120 degrees Fahrenheit with 90% relative humidity, while the coastal desert at 85 degrees with 25% humidity. Each biome has its own independent environmental control system in the Technosphere.
While the temperature inside the glass must vary according to the time of day and the season to mimic the Earth, it is essential that the pressure variation inside does not exceed the strength limits of the glass (Charles’ Law, people, high school chemistry). The problem is solved by the use of two domed “lung” structures south and west of the main Biosphere. Inside each protective white dome, there is a cylinder covered with a rubber (Hypalon) diaphragm that lifts a central weight. Both the diaphragm and the disc-like weight form the ceiling of the wide cylinder connected to the Biosphere by a tunnel. The weight controls the pressure, and the diaphragm rolls up or down like a piston to convert what would otherwise be a change in pressure to a change in volume as it rises and falls throughout the day (Boyle’s Law). Your tour will visit the south wing, with its added feature of a 250,000-gallon reservoir to collect “rainwater” for recycling. With a pair of massive pumps visible above the central pool in the floor, the reservoir also provides fire suppression service for the Biosphere.
As you exit the south lung to the outside world, hold on to your hat. A raging wind will blow you away as you pass through the hatch. That wind will provide your best evidence of positive air pressure within the biosphere.
Later, as you tour the habitat accommodations on your own, be sure to visit the bathroom. You will find the usual toilet paper on a roll, but it will be in an awkward place, as if the bathroom was not designed to hold it. It wasn’t. Note the hose and valve on the wall. It’s a bidet. Biospherers never used toilet paper. The water treatment plant was, well, plants, in the saltwater marsh. Everything, including sewage, was recycled for closed-loop life support. Today, of course, the bathroom is hooked up to a standard septic system. That will be your best proof that Biosphere 2 is no longer closed to the outside.
In fact, Biosphere 2 has been reconfigured to let selected gases (primarily carbon dioxide) flow in and out. With this method, the composition of its atmosphere can be controlled precisely, as it is necessary to do the kind of science that they are doing there now. Water is no longer fully recycled. If it were, isotopic markers used to pinpoint the source of drainage would be double counted.
Biosphere 2 is an ecological laboratory, but its appearance and its atmosphere preserve the romance of its history in a place that, at times, evokes the magnificent desert of the Red Planet. Only the most hollow, dispassionate visitors buy the “Big Science” story. Really, they’re going to Mars.
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