The good news for space colonists is that scientists have shown that plants can also be grown in the soil of the Moon. The bad news, however, for those who dream of a green lunar salad bar is that the plants grown in lunar regolith don’t thrive too well and are generally delicate based on experience.
In a new study published in Communications Biology, researchers at the University of Florida first cultivated plants in the lunar regolith from NASA’s Apollo missions and compared their growth to those planted in volcanic ash on Earth.
Flowers sown in the lunar soil are stressful
The weak performance of plants grown in Apollo samples is a challenge for proponents of “on-site resource utilization”; this term means that astronauts produce water, oxygen, fuel, or in this case food, from resources in an extraterrestrial celestial body instead of packaging it from home.
The researchers planted Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant commonly known as goose grass, in lunar regolite samples brought to Earth by the Apollo-11, -12, and -17 missions, and in a volcanic ash-based control soil.
Plants sown in lunar samples grew more slowly than plants grown in volcanic ash, were smaller, and showed more signs of “stress,” such as the expression of pigmentation and stress-related genes.
While plants grown in volcanic ash developed more or less evenly, plants grown in Apollo – 11 samples performed worse than plants grown in Apollo – 12 and –17 samples, suggesting a variety of samples. The Apollo-11 sample, for example, was exposed to solar and cosmic radiation for the longest time, and researchers have theorized that lunar regolith may have become particularly sensitive to biology as a result of long-term energy bombardment.
This is the first attempt to grow plants in the lunar regolith as a primary medium, and the results are inconsistent with the results of experiments conducted in the 1970s.
In the Apollo program, researchers crushed lunar regolith or lunar dust on plants grown in the ground, so they were covered with lunar dust and found that the plants were actually flowering compared to the control group. The experiments were primarily aimed at ensuring that the lunar samples brought home by astronauts were free of unknown pathogens or toxins. The researchers said the extra nutrients were responsible for the plants’ growth, CNN writes.
Moon trees were grown by Apollo astronauts
The seeds brought to the Moon and brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts were then planted and many of them successfully developed into “moon trees,” but the experiment focused on the viability of the seeds taken into space, not the seeds in the soil from space.
In 2019, an experiment on a 4-moon moon-landing spacecraft in Chiang’e, China, successfully germinated seeds on the moon for the first time, but this was done in a sealed container using terrestrial soil. According to the new study
growing crops on the moon will not be as easy as simply setting up a pressurized greenhouse and planting seeds.
Space agencies, Nasa and the European Space Agency are currently researching a number of different technologies to harness the resources in space so that astronauts do not have to take everything from Earth with them. Scientists at the European Space Agency, for example, are studying how to extract oxygen from molten lunar regolite, while an experimental device on Nasa’s Perseverance march obtained oxygen from the thin atmosphere of Mars.
Nasa plans to return to the Moon in 2025 as part of the space agency’s Artemis program, which aims to use the Moon as a training ground ahead of the Mars mission that begins in the early 2040s. Astronauts who spend weeks or months on the moon will have the opportunity to experiment with on-site resource utilization, including remodeling the lunar regolith to make it more plant-friendly. This would require a lot of experimentation, according to the authors of the present study.
Further analysis and optimization would be needed before the lunar regolyte can be considered a routine on-site resource, especially in places where the regolyte is very mature.
– wrote in the study.
(Cover image: Isabella BONOTTO / AFP)