For all astronauts hoping to survive on the moon’s surface, growing crops is essential.
Now scientists have taken ‘one small step’ towards growing plants on the lunar surface, after demonstrating that it is possible to grow thale cress in lunar soil – albeit right here on Earth.
Researchers at the University of Florida grew the plants in soil collected by NASA during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions.
The findings raise hopes that plants could be grown on the moon during future space missions.
“For future, longer space missions, we can use the moon as a hub or launch pad,” explains Professor Rob Ferl, one of the authors of the study.
“It makes sense that we want to use the soil that is already there to grow plants.”
Scientists have taken ‘a small step’ towards growing plants on the lunar surface after demonstrating it is possible to grow thale cress in lunar soil
University of Florida researchers grew the plants in soil collected by NASA during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions
Moon soil could be used to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and ROCKET FUEL to power future missions to Mars
Moon soil could potentially be turned into rocket fuel to power future missions to Mars, a new study has found.
Analysis of coarse and jagged dirt grains brought along by the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e 5 found that regolith on the moon contains compounds that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.
The soil is rich in iron and titanium, which act as catalysts under sunlight and can convert carbon dioxide and water released by astronauts’ bodies into oxygen, hydrogen and other beneficial byproducts such as methane to power a lunar base.
Because liquid oxygen and hydrogen make rocket fuel, it also opens the door to a cost-effective interplanetary gas station on the moon for travel to the Red Planet and beyond.
This is seen as an essential next step for space agencies around the world because it is so expensive to launch goods into orbit.
While previous studies have sprinkled plants with lunar soil (also known as regolith) to test for pathogens, scientists have so far not grown plants in the soil.
“So, what happens when you grow plants on lunar soil, something that’s completely outside of a plant’s evolutionary experience? What would plants do in a moon greenhouse? Can we have moon farmers?’ Professor Ferl wondered.
To answer these questions, the team started planting thale cress seeds in moon soil, adding water, nutrients and light, and seeing what happened.
However, the team only had 12 grams of lunar soil on loan from NASA to do this with, meaning they had to conduct the experiment in thimble-sized pits rather than large pots.
The researchers chose to use thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) because its genetic code has already been fully mapped.
By comparison, the researchers also planted seeds in a range of terrestrial soils, including those that simulate Martian soils.
To their delight, the researchers found that nearly all of the seeds sprouted.
‘We were amazed. We had not predicted that,” says Professor Anna-Lisa Paul, one of the authors of the study.
“That told us that the lunar soils don’t interrupt the hormones and signals involved in plant germination.”
However, the team did notice differences between the plants grown in the lunar soil and those in the control soils.
Some of the plants growing on the lunar bottoms were smaller, while others grew more slowly or varied more in size.
The team set out to plant thale cress seeds in moon soil, add water, nutrients and light, and see what happened
This suggests that the plants must work to cope with the lunar regolith’s chemical and structural makeup, Professor Paul said.
These findings were confirmed in a follow-up study of the gene expression patterns of the plants.
‘At the genetic level, the plants brought out the tools commonly used to deal with stressors, such as salt and metals or oxidative stress, so we can conclude that the plants experience the lunar soil as stressful,’ explains Professor Paul.
The team did notice differences between the plants grown on the moon soil and those on the control soils
“Ultimately, we want to use the gene expression data to explore how we can improve stress responses to the level where plants – especially crops – can grow in lunar soil with very little impact on their health.”
According to Dr. Stephen Elardo, who participated in the study, says growing plants on lunar soils can also change the moon itself.
“The moon is a very, very dry place,” he said.
“How will minerals in the lunar soil react to growing a plant, with the added water and nutrients? Does adding water make mineralogy more hospitable to plants?’
In follow-up research, the researchers hope to answer these questions.
The study comes as NASA’s Artemis program kicks off, which aims to send humans back to the moon by 2025.
“Artemis requires a better understanding of growing plants in space,” concluded Professor Ferl.
WHAT WAS THE APOLLO PROGRAM?
NASA photo taken on July 16, 1969 shows the huge, 363-foot-tall Apollo 11 Spacecraft 107/Lunar Module S/Saturn 506) spacecraft launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), at 9:32 a.m. ( EDT).
Apollo was the NASA program that launched in 1961 and got the first man on the moon eight years later.
The first four flights tested the equipment for the Apollo program and six of the other seven flights managed to land on the moon.
The first manned mission to the moon was Apollo 8, which circled it on Christmas Eve in 1968, but did not land.
The Apollo 9 crew spent ten days in orbit, completing the first manned flight of the lunar module — the part of the Apollo rocket that would later land Neil Armstrong on the moon.
The Apollo 11 mission was the first to land on the moon on July 20, 1969.
The capsule landed on the Sea of Tranquility, with mission commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin aboard.
Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the lunar surface while Michael Collins remained in orbit around the moon.
When Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, he said, “That’s one small step for (a) man; a giant leap for humanity.’
Apollo 12 landed on the Ocean of Storms later that year on November 19, writes NASA†
Apollo 13 was supposed to be the third mission to land on the moon, but just under 56 hours into the flight, an oxygen tank explosion forced the crew to cancel the moon landing and return to the Aquarius lunar module to return to the earth.
Apollo 15 was the ninth manned lunar mission in the Apollo space program and at the time was considered the most successful manned spaceflight to date due to its long duration and greater emphasis on scientific exploration than had been possible on previous missions.
The last Apollo moon landing took place in 1972 after a total of 12 astronauts landed on the lunar surface.
Astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin unpacks experiments from the lunar module on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Photographed by Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969