Growing plants on “moon dust”? Will the Moon be the next agriculture belt?

The photo provided by the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences shows the differences between thale cress plants grown in volcanic ash from Earth, which had a similar particle size and mineral composition to lunar soil (left), compared with those grown in the lunar soil (right) after 16 days, at a laboratory in Gainesville, Florida.

Photo: AP

They have tried it all — cultivation on arid deserts, hills and mountains, salt-affected soils, and even the Mars. The scientists have now expanded their horizons and have now cultivated plants on the lunar soil collected from the moon!
The researchers from the University of Florida tried to grow plants in soil collected from the moon by NASA’s Apollo astronauts, and planted thale cress in moon soil returned by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and other moonwalkers. The idea was to see if anything would sprout in the harsh moon dirt and if it could be used to grow food on the moon by the next generation of lunar explorers. The researchers were not expecting any positive result, and were in for a big surprise. All the seeds they had planted on moondust had sprouted!
The resultant saplings weren’t as healthy as the ones that were sprouting from the Earth’s soil. After the first week, the small, flowering weeds were so stressed by the coarseness and other properties of the lunar soil that they grew more slowly even as compared to the seedlings planted in “fake moon dirt” from Earth — the researchers had replicated the properties of moon soil on soil from Earth. It was also observed that most of the moon plants ended up stunted.

Moon dirt is full of tiny, glass fragments from micrometeorite impacts that got everywhere in the Apollo lunar landers and wore down the moonwalkers’ spacesuits.

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It was found that the longer the soil was exposed to the harsh cosmic radiation and solar wind on the moon, the worse the plants seemed to do. According to the results published on Thursday (May 12) in Communications Biology, “The Apollo 11 samples — exposed a couple of billion years longer to the elements because of the Sea of ​​Tranquility’s older surface — were the least conducive for growth,” according to scientists.
However, the science fraternity is thrilled nonetheless. “This is a big step forward to know that 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 real next step, they say, is to go and do it on the surface of the moon.

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What exactly is ‘moon dust’?

Only 382 kilograms of moon rocks and soil were brought back by six Apollo crews, according to NASA. Some of the earliest moon dust was sprinkled on the plants under quarantine with the Apollo astronauts in Houston after returning from the moon.

Most of the lunar soil was locked away until recently, which left the University of Florida researchers with no option but to experiment with simulated soil made of volcanic ash on Earth earlier. However, NASA finally yielded 12 grams of moon dust to the researchers early last year. The long-awaited planting took place last May in a lab.

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As per NASA, the timing for such an experiment was finally right. The space agency is now looking to put astronauts back on the moon in a few years.

Moon-agriculture

To develop a sustainable lunar agriculture system, the scientists say that a possible solution might be to use younger geologic spots on the moon, like lava flows, for digging up planting soil. The environment also could be tweaked, altering the nutrient mixture or adjusting the artificial lighting.

“The fact that anything grew means that we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how do we optimize and improve,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s program scientist for space biology. The ideal situation for future astronauts would be to tap into the endless supply of available local dirt for indoor planting as opposed to setting up an all-water (hydroponic) system, the open scientists.

The Florida scientists hope to recycle their lunar soil later this year, planting more thale cress before possibly moving on to other vegetation.

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