For the first time, scientists have grown plants in the moon’s soil collected by NASA’s Apollo astronauts.
The researchers had no idea if anything would sprout on the moon’s hard earth and wanted to see if it could be used to grow food by the next generation of lunar explorers. The results surprised them.
“Holy cow. Plants really do grow on lunar things. Are you kidding me?” said Robert Ferl of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Ferl and his colleagues planted thale cress — a small annual weed related to mustard and cabbage — in lunar soil returned by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and other moonwalkers. The good news: all the seeds germinated.
The downside was that after the first week, the coarseness and other properties of lunar soil stressed the small flowering weeds so much that they grew more slowly than seedlings planted in Earth’s fake lunar soil. Most lunar plants ended up stunted.
The results were published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology.
Soil exposed to punitive conditions
The longer the soil was exposed to punishing cosmic radiation and the solar wind on the moon, the worse the plants seemed to be. The Apollo 11 samples — exposed a few billion years longer to the elements because of the Sea of Tranquility’s older surface — were the least conducive to growth, according to the scientists.
“This is a big step towards knowing you can grow plants,” said Simon Gilroy, a space plant biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who had no role in the study. “The next real step is to go and do it on the surface of the moon.”
The moon’s dirt is littered with tiny shards of glass from micrometeorite impacts that reached every Apollo moon landing spot and wore away moonwalkers’ spacesuits.
One solution might be to use younger geological spots on the moon, such as lava flows, to dig up planting soil. The environment can also be adjusted by changing the nutrient mix or adjusting the artificial lighting.
Only 382 kilograms of moon rock and soil were brought back by six Apollo crews. Some of the first moon dust was scattered on plants quarantined with Apollo astronauts in Houston after returning from the moon.
Most of the lunar stockpile remained locked away, forcing researchers to experiment with simulated soil made from volcanic ash on Earth. NASA finally distributed 12 grams to researchers at the University of Florida early last year, and the long-awaited planting took place last May in a lab.
NASA said the time for such an experiment was finally right, with the space agency looking to put astronauts back on the Moon in a few years.
The ideal situation would be for future astronauts to take advantage of the infinite supply of local dirt available for indoor planting, rather than setting up a hydroponic system, or all water, the scientists said.
“The fact that anything has grown means we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how to optimize and improve,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s program scientist for space biology,
Florida scientists hope to recycle their lunar soil later this year, planting more watercress before possibly moving on to other vegetation.
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