NASA Plans to Grow First Plants on the Moon

By Breanna Draxler | November 25, 2013 3:16 pm
transgenic plant of Arabidopsis.

Arabidopsis plants like those that will (fingers crossed) grow on the moon. Photo credit: Vasiliy Koval/Shutterstock

The U.S. may not have plans to return astronauts to the moon anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean other lifeforms won’t grace the lunar surface. NASA is teaming up with students and private space companies to grow the first plants on the moon’s surface starting in 2015.

The self-contained Lunar Plant Growth Habitat will resemble a glorified coffee can and will contain enough water, nutrients and air to grow 10 turnip seeds, 10 basil seeds, and 100 arabidopsis seeds (this plant is the lab-rat of the botany world).

As reported in Forbes,

This experiment will test whether plants can survive radiation, flourish in partial gravity, and thrive in a small, controlled environment – the same obstacles that we will need to overcome in order to build a greenhouse on the Moon, or create life on Mars.

If the seeds successfully germinate, they will be the first Earth plant life transported to another planetary body. Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, where the team is based, told Forbes,

“The first picture of a plant growing on another world – that picture will live forever.  It will be as iconic as the first footprint on the moon.”

Lunar Greenhouse

mooncast for experiment to sent plants to the moon

This 3D-printed model of the plant habitat will include cameras, sensors, micro fluidics system, and a seed module needed to sustain life on another world. Photo credit: Hemil Modi.

When the mini-habitat lands on the moon, the fancy can will automatically release enough water to wet a piece of nutrient-laden filter paper. That, along with the natural sunlight on the moon, should trigger the germination of the plants. Since it’s sealed, the container will only have enough air for about a week, but that’s enough to see if the seeds germinate successfully.

The souped-up can will also be equipped with dozens of cameras and sensors that will enable scientists back on Earth to watch and record the growing process and see how well the plants regulate their temperature and water supply.

Controls in the Classroom

To see how these same aluminum greenhouses perform in “normal” terrestrial conditions, the team plans to send additional cans to classrooms across the country.

As Forbes describes,

In a brilliant mix of creativity and frugality, NASA will send schools their own set of habitats so they can grow the same plants that are being sent to the Moon. The reasons for this are two fold.

First, every experiment needs a control, and instead of spending the money to duplicate the experiment multiple times, they can crowdsource it… Second, it allows children to be part of the moment – to not just watch from afar, but to gain experience and knowledge by actively participating.

Fly Me to the Moon

The team plans to hitchhike on the robotic spacecraft of whichever private company wins the Google Lunar X Prize, saving millions of dollars in travel costs. According to one expert’s estimates, this mission would have cost about $300 million twenty years ago; the current price tag rings up at a mere $2 million. Not bad for an experiment that could help us figure out how to sustain life on other planets—or in a future version of our own.

MORE ABOUT: moon, plants
  • Duno

    Correct me if I’m wrong. So the plant is confined in a sealed “coffee can.” Doesn’t that mean the plant is not planted directly on the Moon surface, i.e its root will not be touching the lunar soil? Is this still considered “growing a plant on the Moon?”

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Breanna Draxler

      You are correct. The plants will not be growing in the moon’s soil. They will be growing in a container on the surface to see how this environment’s unique conditions affect and/or inhibit their growth. The experiment needs to be contained for precautionary reasons.

      • http://www.thealders.net/blogs Doug Alder

        I doubt the containment has anything to do with precautions. Lunar soil would be too cold for roots, additionally it’s a vacuum on the surface so the odds of getting a successful seal without an in situ human presence would be too low to warrant the expense. Given that the moon is essentially in a vacuum there is no worry of earth plant life escaping and polluting the pristine surface. Mars however, that’s another ball game entirely.

        • Ernie

          Lunar soil might be too cold for things to grow in at night, but during the day (depending on the latitude, of course) it would have the opposite effect.

          For an equivalent Earth location, imagine a location where there’s never a cloud in the sky, and the day is 14 days long. The moon is basically like the Sahara or Gobi deserts, but with extra bake time.

          • Scott Kennelly

            No . . . the Moon is NOTHING like the Sahara or Gobi deserts. Anything on the Moon will burn up if it is exposed to direct sunlight . . . no matter what lattitude it is at. The only hope for something to survive there is for it to be in a “greenhouse” that keeps it in a more stable, somewhat pressurized environment, where there is some oxygen. No oxygen . . . no life. We’re not talking about ammonia-based life forms here – not that it would matter, because there is a distinct lack of ammonia on the surface of the Moon too.

    • d clark

      They have plenty (I think about 900 lb) of moon material. Why not have that be the soil in the tube. Then they would know if it works. Or for a control have some tubes with earth soil and some with moon soil. Just thinking.

      • Ernie

        It’s extremely unlikely that would work, since modern plants need certain nutrients to grow that they usually get from other rotting plants.

        And on top of that, Lunar regolith is actually highly toxic to humans. It’s also very sharp, especially in its dusty form, and this property of the soil would probably kill plants too.

        Nevermind the fact that you don’t actually need soil to grow plants.

        • Scott Kennelly

          You mean lunar soil is toxic, right? Why use an obscure word like “regolith” Ernie? If they decided to use moon dust or moon soil they should have no problem. There is very little difference between soil content on the Moon and soil around volcanoes here on Earth, which provide some of the most fertile soil in which plants can grow.

          • Ernie

            Regolith isn’t soil. Soil has organic content, and the moon’s regolith has none. It hasn’t been weathered by the wind or water, so unlike sand, it’s extremely sharp, and often very fine. And it’s toxic for the same reasons asbestos is toxic – it’s made of sharp, fine-grained particles that, when you breathe it or your skin comes in contact with it, it gets stuck in your soft tissue and causes tumours.

            Volcanic rocks are much the same way, except they haven’t been smashed to tiny bits by meteorite impacts. So while you might want to compare it to volcanic soil, volcanic soil is only fertile after it’s been weathered a while.

          • Scott Kennelly

            Wrong Ernie. Volcanic soil is fertile, because of the nutrients in it. Plants break down nutrients, which will be much easier to break down from tiny particles (dust) than from larger ones. Calling it sharp is seriously meaningless. Everything is “sharp” to some degree. The mechanical action of particles rubbing against each other is what weathers things more than anything else, and while there is no wind causing stuff to rub against each other, we get similar effects from breaking up rock mechanically and using it as soil. We humans do that with machines all the time. Saying that the Moon has some special characteristic, because the “regolith” is sharp is just silly. Is “nutrient rich” soil only in existence, because there are microbes in it? NO. Nutrient rich soils can exist without any microbe activity whatsoever. Just a few elements are necessary for plants to grow, and if you use dirt from the surface of the Moon or dirt from the surface of Mars or dirt from the surface of the Earth, as long as the right elements are present in an absorbable form, plants will grow. Of course plants will grow better with better fertilizer, like cow dung (which actually is converted into other things by bacteria, which are more readily absorbable by plant roots, but ultimately, plants WILL grow. Plants need very little nutrients to grow, and if necessary, a few drops of a liquid fertilizer could be used by the people inhabiting a base on the Moon. We don’t need to send a bunch of “Earth dirt” up to the Moon to get things to grow in green houses on the Moon. The whole idea that we might need to do that is absurd.

            In face, I think the whole experiment these people are doing is absurd and probably just a publicity stunt. What we really need to do is get on with creating a base on the Moon. We can put some animals up there, and have a robot take care of them, after the humans come home, and then have more humans go back up there, after six months or a year of the animals have lived there, do some medical testing on the animals, and then we will know some of the long term affects of life on the Moon. Ultimately, as long as there is some shielding and there is a hole in the ground (like a cave, which will shield them from radiation that might not be stopped purely by the hull of the Moon base), where some of the animals can be kept, I believe we will be able to send people there to man the Moon base for a year at a time. As long as we send two missions to the Moon each year, switching out half the people on the moon base (maybe 3 people each time with a permanent population of 6 peoople), I think we will have a good start in our efforts to expand into the rest of the solar system. We need to do something similar with Mars.

            Ultimately we should have two or three bases on the Moon and half a dozen on Mars, similar to what the international community has done in Antarctica. Ultimately I believe that in a hundred years there will be thriving colonies on Mars and there will be multiple space stations orbiting the Earth and Mars (and possibly Venus). That, along with robotic manufacturing plants in space (some as far out as the asteroid belt) is the best way for us to guarantee the survival of the Human race (and thousands of other species), in the even there is a great cataclysm on Earth, which wipes out most life here.

            I believe THAT is the ultimate goal . . . survival of not only our own species, but as much life from Earth as possible.

      • Zebra Dun

        Sending Moon soil back to the moon?
        “BRILLIANT!”

    • Ernie

      Okay.

      It’s because we’re not entirely sure if food plants will even grow at *all* on the moon, even if we have terrestrial soil in which to grow them (not that we really need to, see hydroponics). We are unsure if plants can survive exposure the sun’s radiation, like the X and Gamma rays that our own atmosphere filters out, or whether or not they can properly germinate in 1/6th of earth’s gravity. A lot of experiments with growing plants in space haven’t gone very well because said plants don’t know which way to grow to even get out of the soil.

      This is actually mentioned in the article.

      • Dave_Mowers

        …except a Russian cosmonaut claims to have placed living plants without soil in outer space around the Russian space station Mir and left them for two months, brought them back to earth and planted them in his yard where they live today.

        Yeah, that’s right, they survived 240+ temps and minus 90 with no water or soil.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Hype masquerading as flashy mediocrity. “Pete Worden” is uncomfortably close to the German slang “Jürgen Würgen.” “In a brilliant mix of creativity and frugality” Anagram “Persephone Throckmorton.”

    an experiment that could help us figure out how to sustain life on other planets—or in a future version of our own.” Wash your hands and brain after typing that. Dump a pound of facultative autotroph Chroococcidiopsis cyanobacteria into Jupiter’s atmosphere, then be patient. (Deinococcus radiodurans is an obligate aerobe.)

    • Brian Schmidt

      Hopefully none of this bacteria were on the Galieo probe or main spacecraft, or on Cassini assuming NASA goes ahead with the unsafe plan to smash that spacecraft into Saturn’s atmosphere instead of into the smallest rocky moon it can find. Office of Planetary Protection’s dropped the ball three times on the gas giants. The issue is that life arrived there long ago on a meteorite, and now we’re potentially contaminating it.

  • Billy Sastard

    Brilliant idea, but why the fuss about lunar soil? This experiment isn’t about the soil, it’s a “self-contained Lunar Plant Growth Habitat”, so does exactly what it says on the tin.

  • Faria Ahmed Zaara

    What about the risks associated with transporting bacteria in the soil to an environment where they are NO bio competition so far and can thrive or evolve into something scary??? :O

    • Ernie

      Heh. On the moon? Good luck with that.

  • Neel Unni

    No First Moon-Landing is anywhere close to THIS BIG LEAP. A leap that is going to follow leaps both at quantity and quality in the times to come! We are SPACIOUS

  • Neel Unni

    We should send a plant-house to every planet and moon we go “from now on”

  • Dave_Mowers

    We’ll spend money on this but we won’t bother allocating anything towards sustainable, organic, increased-yield technologies to feed the hungry or homeless unless it means a subsidy for a gigantic, highly-profitable corporation who will get all the intellectual property rights and patents on it.

  • Scott Kennelly

    I think this whole experiment is stupid. What does it matter if plants grow there? If they don’t, then we will send some more supplies. It’s not like we won’t be sending supplies anyway. The whole idea is a stupid waste of money, since the first “base” on the moon will be regularly supplied with food and everything else they need anyway. At that point they can experiment with plants all they like. We KNOW that plants will survive on Mars, and that is the real target, after-all. If they really want to learn, why not just send this plant experiment to Mars on the next mission there?

    This all just seems like a publicity stunt to get more interest in placing a base on the Moon. They need to hurry up and pull the trigger on THAT, instead of screwing around with stupid little experiments like this.

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