Scientists have grown plants in soil from the moon collected by NASA’s Apollo astronauts.
Researchers had no idea if anything would sprout in the harsh moon dirt and wanted to see if it could be used to grow food by the next generation of lunar* explorers. The results stunned them.
“Holy cow,” said the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Professor Robert Ferl. “Plants actually grow in lunar stuff. Are you kidding me?”
Professor Ferl and his colleagues planted thale cress* in moon soil returned by Apollo 11′s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and other moonwalkers. The good news was that all of the seeds sprouted.
“When we first saw that abundance* of green sprouts cast over all of the samples, it took our breath away,” University of Florida Interdisciplinary* Center for Biotechnology* Research director and co-author of the study Professor Anna-Lisa Paul told Reuters.
“Plants can grow in lunar regolith*. That one simple statement is huge and opens the door to future exploration using resources in place on the moon and likely Mars.”
The downside was that after the first week, the coarseness* and other properties of the lunar soil stressed the small, flowering weeds so much that they grew more slowly than seedlings planted in fake moon dirt from Earth. Most of the moon plants ended up stunted.
Results published Thursday in Communications Biology showed that the longer the soil was exposed to punishing cosmic* radiation* and solar wind on the moon, the worse the plants seemed to do. The Apollo 11 samples — exposed a couple billion years longer to the elements because of the Sea of Tranquility’s* older surface — were the least conducive* for growth, according to scientists.
“This is a big step forward to know that you can grow plants,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison space plant biologist Dr Simon Gilroy, who had no role in the study.
“The real next step is to go and do it on the surface of the moon.”
Moon dirt is full of tiny, glass fragments from micro-meteorite impacts that got everywhere in the Apollo lunar landers and wore down the moonwalkers’ spacesuits.
One solution might be to use younger geological* spots on the moon, like lava flows, for digging up planting soil. The environment could also be tweaked, altering the nutrient mixture or adjusting the artificial lighting.
Only 382kg of moon rocks and soil were brought back by six Apollo crews. Some of the earliest moon dust was sprinkled on plants under quarantine with the Apollo astronauts in Houston after returning from the moon.
Most of the lunar stash remained locked away, forcing researchers to experiment with simulated* soil made of volcanic ash on Earth. NASA finally released 12g to the University of Florida researchers early last year and the long-awaited planting took place last May in a lab.
NASA said the timing 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 tap into the endless supply of available local dirt for indoor planting versus setting up a hydroponic*, or all-water, system, scientists said.
“The fact that anything grew means that we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how do we optimise* and improve,” said NASA’s program scientist for space biology, Dr Sharmila Bhattacharya.
The Florida scientists hope to recycle their lunar soil later this year, planting more thale cress before possibly moving on to other vegetation.
Additional reporting by Reuters
- lunar: the moon, relating to the moon
- thale cress: small flowering plant popular as a model organism in plant biology
- abundance: when there is more than enough of something
- interdisciplinary: drawing on several branches of knowledge and research
- biotechnology: using biology to solve problems and create useful products
- regolith: loose rock and mineral material covering the solid surface
- coarseness: roughness, harshness, unevenness
- cosmic: relating to the universe and processes occurring within it
- radiation: energy from a source that travels through space at the speed of light
- Sea of Tranquility: the lunar landing site of Apollo 11
- conducive: providing the right conditions for something to happen
- geological: science relating to the physical nature and history of Earth, including rocks
- simulated: imitation, created conditions or processes similar to something that exists
- hydroponic: method of growing plants in water with added chemicals rather than in earth
- optimise: making something as good, effective or useful as possible
- Moon soil samples included those from which famous NASA mission?
- What was the total weight of the moon rock and soil brought back by astronauts?
- Researchers used simulated soil made of what?
- How big was the sample NASA released to the Florida scientists last year?
- Why did NASA say the timing was finally right to release the sample?
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1. Design your own moon garden
Work with a partner to design your own garden to take to the moon and grow in lunar soil. Draw a rectangle that is the planter box, then sketch and label the plants you would have in your moon garden.
How would your garden benefit humans travelling to the moon?
Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science; Personal and Social; Critical and Creative Thinking
What do you think the future of moon landings will look like 50 years from now? Will plants be growing? Will people be visiting as tourists? What would you like to see?
Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science; Critical and Creative Thinking
Imagine you were there during the event being discussed in the article, or for the interview.
Create a conversation between two characters from the article – you may need or want to include yourself as one of the characters. Don’t forget to try to use facts and details from the article to help make your dialogue as realistic as possible.
Go through your writing and highlight any punctuation you have used in green. Make sure you carefully check the punctuation used for the dialogue and ensure you have opened and closed the speaking in the correct places.