NASA has revealed that scientists have made a major breakthrough concerning the possibility of people living some day on the moon or on other worlds. Scientists at the University of Florida have succeeded in growing crops in soil that was taken from the Moon during NASA’s Apollo Moon landings.
So, why is this important? Well, if we ever do find other planets where everything is just right for human life – just the right distance away from a star with the right temperatures and fresh water, etc. – this does not mean that the world will have arable land. It could all be rock, or sand, and not have any [possibility for planting crop.
If that were to be the case then people would need to bring soil from the Earth with them. But there is only so much and how can you grow new soil on another planet.
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“This research is critical to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals as we’ll need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This fundamental plant growth research is also a key example of how NASA is working to unlock agricultural innovations that could help us understand how plants might overcome stressful conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth.”
They did so with a plant called the Arabidopsis thaliana, which is native to Eurasia and Africa. It is a relative of mustard greens and other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. It also plays a key role for scientists: due to its small size and ease of growth, it is one of the most studied plants in the world, used as a model organism for research into all areas of plant biology. As such, scientists already know what its genes look like, how it behaves in different circumstances, even how it grows in space.
To grow the Arabidopsis, the team used samples collected on the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions, with only a gram of regolith allotted for each plant. The team added water and then seeds to the samples. They then put the trays into terrarium boxes in a clean room. A nutrient solution was added daily.
“After two days, they started to sprout!” said Anna-Lisa Paul, who is also a professor in Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, and who is first author on the paper. “Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how astonished we were! Every plant – whether in a lunar sample or in a control – looked the same up until about day six.”
“Here we are, 50 years later, completing experiments that were started back in the Apollo labs,” said Robert Ferl, a professor in the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and a communicating author on a paper published on May 12, 2022, in Communications Biology. “We first asked the question of whether plants can grow in regolith. And second, how might that one day help humans have an extended stay on the Moon.”
The plants frown, however, were not as robust as plants grown in Earth soil, or even as those in the control group grown in a lunar simulant made from volcanic ash, but they did indeed grow. And the scientists said that by studying how the plants responded in the lunar samples, the team hopes to go on to answer the second question as well, paving the way for future astronauts to someday grow more nutrient-rich plants on the Moon and thrive in deep space.