Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — For the first time, scientists have grown plants in lunar soil collected by NASA’s Apollo astronauts.
Researchers don’t know if germination will occur in the harsh lunar mud, and want to see if it can be used by the next generation of lunar explorers to grow food. The results surprised them.
“Omg. Plants actually grow in lunar material. Are you kidding me?” said Robert Fair of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Ferl and his colleagues planted cress in lunar soil returned by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 and other moonwalkers. Good news: all the seeds sprouted.
The downside is that after the first week, the roughness and other properties of the lunar soil put so much pressure on these little flowering weeds that they grow faster than seedlings planted in fake lunar soil on Earth. Be slow. Most lunar plants end up stunted.
The results were published Thursday in Communications Biology.
The longer the soil was exposed to punishing cosmic radiation and solar wind on the Moon, the worse the plants performed. Due to the older surface of the Sea of Tranquility, the Apollo 11 samples were exposed to elements that were the worst for growth for billions of years longer, according to scientists.
“It’s a huge step toward knowing you can grow plants,” said UW-Madison space plant biologist Simon Gilroy, who was not involved in the study. “The real next step. It’s going to the surface of the moon to do this.”
The lunar mud is filled with tiny shards of glass from micrometeorite impacts that are everywhere in the Apollo lunar landers and wear down moonwalkers’ space suits.
One solution might be to use younger geological sites on the moon, such as lava flows, to excavate planting soil. The environment can also be adjusted, changing the nutrient mix or adjusting artificial lighting,
The six Apollo astronauts brought back only 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar rocks and soil. After returning from the moon, some of the earliest lunar dust was sprinkled on plants isolated from the Apollo astronauts in Houston.
Much of the lunar stash remains locked up, forcing researchers to conduct experiments on Earth with simulated soil made from volcanic ash. Early last year, NASA finally released 12 grams to researchers at the University of Florida, and the long-awaited cultivation took place in the lab last May.
NASA says the timing for such an experiment is finally right, and the space agency hopes to return astronauts to the moon within a few years.
Scientists say the ideal scenario would be for future astronauts to use the local endless dirt for indoor cultivation, rather than building a hydroponic or all-water system.
“The growth of anything means we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how do we optimize and improve,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s space biology program scientist.
Florida scientists hope to recycle their lunar soil later this year to grow more cress before it may be transferred to other vegetation.
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