Researchers grow miniature plants in lunar dirt collected decades ago

Photo: Taylor Jones

NASA conducted some experiments after the lunar missions in the 1960s and 1970s that brought back lunar material, but these were nothing like what Paul and Fair attempted. “A small amount of regolith material came into contact with plants, and the data showed no major negative effects,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s chief scientist for astrobiology. But Paul and Fair’s new study is more ambitious. “This is a unique experiment in actually growing these plants in the regolith, with supplemental material of course. It’s a first, and that’s why we’re very excited,” Bhattacharya said.

Today, NASA doesn’t have much regolith to share with scientists, but they have been gradually distributing it to high-priority research.The agency recently Open One of the last samples collected in 1972 to study the regolith of the Apollo 17 landing Artemis ProjectApollo’s successor is now accelerating, and the agency expects more samples to come as astronauts return to the moon in a few years’ time.

Learning how to grow food off Earth can be important because every gram sent to space takes up space on a spacecraft and increases its cost and fuel requirements. Additionally, in remote, isolated environments such as space stations or lunar habitats, a little greenery can go a long way toward a crew’s mental health, if not a lot of food. “Having the touch and feel of a plant can have psychological benefits,” says Bhattacharya.

For these reasons, astronauts and researchers have begun to test different approaches grow food on the International Space Station. Paul and Ferl’s research could be an important step toward space agriculture. “This is an impressive study for two reasons. They’re using actual Apollo samples, and they’re applying modern biological tools,” said Kevin Can, a geologist and space resources researcher at the Colorado School of Mines. Kevin Cannon said he was not involved in the paper.But there are other options for growing plants and vegetables without using dirt, such as HydroponicsAeroponics, or growing cells in a reactorwhich may be more effective for missions to the International Space Station or the Moon, Cannon said.

On the other hand, going to Mars requires long journeys and long visits. With the planet so far away, it will be more difficult to deliver food supplies, which could make it a better place to try crops on a larger scale, he said.Researchers have begun growing plants, including cress, in simulated Martian soil, which they can try out with real plants while at NASA Returning samples from the Perseverance Mars rover mission. If it works, a botanist-astronaut like Mark Watney could one day Growing potatoes on the red planet— but until someone figured out a way to help Earth’s plants thrive in space’s regolith, rather than just survive.

Still, for Paul and her colleagues, space farming, or at least space gardening, will be our future. “Here, we introduced part of the moon to biology, and it worked. To me, it was so symbolic. When we left Earth, we took plants with us,” she said.

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