Small pot of soil, but it’s a big step up for space farming: Scientists have, for the first time, grown plants in a few grams of lunar soil, Apollo astronauts reported decades ago.
This success is fueling hopes that one day it may be possible to grow plants directly on the moon. This will save future explorers many expensive payloads aboard their rockets, for longer missions, further afield.
There is still a lot of work to do, however, before that can be achieved, demonstrated this work by researchers from the University of Florida, which was published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology.
“This research is important to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals,” NASA President Bill Nelson said in a statement. “We will need to use the resources on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living in deep space.”
In their experiment, the researchers used only 12 grams of lunar soil (a few teaspoons), collected from various places on the moon during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions.
In small pots the size of a thimble, they put about a gram of soil (called regolith) at a time, added water, and then the seeds. A daily nutrient solution has also been added.
The plant used was Arabidopsis thaliana, chosen because it grows easily and, above all, because it has already been extensively studied: its genetic code, as well as the way it behaves in hostile environments – even in space – is known.
The seeds were sown at the same time in soil from our own land, and samples mimicking that of the Moon and Mars, to serve as a comparison.
Result: After two days, the seeds of the lunar samples sprouted.
“All plants, whether in lunar soil samples or observational samples, looked similar until day six,” Anna Lisa Ball, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
But later, it was found that moon plants grow slower and have stunted roots.
After 20 days, scientists harvested it and studied its DNA. They found that lunar plants responded in the same way that they responded to a hostile environment, such as when the soil contained a lot of salt or heavy metals.
In the future, scientists want to strive to understand how this environment can be made more hospitable.
NASA is preparing to return to the Moon as part of the Artemis program, with the goal of establishing a permanent human presence there.
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