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.

To boldly go where no plant has gone before – NASA to grow plants on the moon in 2015

  • If astronauts are ever to live on the moon or in deep space outposts, a sustainable living plan in which they would grow their own food (plants) in greenhouses is required.
  • NASA is taking the first steps in this direction by developing a project which aims to germinate plants on the moon’s surface.
  • Thousands of students from high schools and universities will also be involved in the project.
Arabidopsis plant seeds will be germinated on the moon's surface in habitat containers. (c)

Arabidopsis plant seeds will be germinated on the moon’s surface in habitat containers. (c)

While we may still be many years away from the moment when another human being sets foot on the moon, this doesn’t necessarily mean that other life forms need to miss out as well. For now, the next biological entities set to touch soil with the moon will be plants, according to NASA. To be more precise, plant seeds will be sent to the moon where an automatic system will deploy the necessary steps to commence germination and plant growth. The project is set to be low cost and of high educational value since thousands of university and high school students will participate as citizen scientists.

Before any talks of a permanent moon base or outer space outposts can be seriously discussed, it’s important to conceive a solid sustainable living plan for the men and women staged in such a facility. Although plants have been grown successfully in space, notably on board the International Space Station, the moon’s surface is the closest we can get momentarily to deep space conditions – partial gravity and higher radiation exposure. There’s a fairly accepted consenssous that growing plants on the moon is possible, but not much is know about the feassability of such an endeavour.

A first step in long term presence on the moon or deep space is to send plants; seeding plants, to be more precise. Seedlings are extremely sensitive to their growth environments, and radiation can severely alter their genetic mark-up – so far, the same applies to humans. With this in mind, by thoroughly studying what happens to plants as they mature and grow over a longer time frame, you can make some assumptions regarding what this means for humans as well. If plants prosper, humans prosper and vice-versa.

It’s well known, however, that NASA is on an ever thinning budget. Luckly, modern technology and private space ventures have eased space flight tremendously and NASA’s project to grow plants on the moon will take advantage of this. According to Dr. Chris McKay, a well-renowned planetary scientist, this project would have cost $300 million two decades ago, but now the team is confident they can pull it off with under $2 million. The key is small-scale, translating in small payload, and … hitchhiking.

Interplanetary plants

You might have heard of Google’s LunarX Prize, a contest where a $20 million prize will be awarded to the first private space venture team that manages to deploy a robotic spacecraft on the moon’s surface, at least travel for a bit and transmit back two “Mooncasts” by December 31, 2015. There’s no need to send the seeds on a launch of its own – that would raise the costs of the project to unfeasible lengths – and since teams competing in the LunarX Prize will be the first in the world to attempt a landing on the moon any time soon, the NASA scientists plan on piggybacking a small payload.

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.

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.

The payload is comprised of lightweight cyllinders resembling coffee cans in which 10 turnip seeds, 10 basil seeds, and 100 arabidopsis seeds will be germinated. Obviously, the plants won’t be seeded on the moon’s soil itself, which is unsuitable to bear plant life, instead the coffee can-like containers will act as high-tech habitats where soil, nutrients, water and 5-days worth of air will be provided for germination, all while multiple sensors detect and transmit all kinds of valuable information back on Earth. Natural sunlight of the moon will be used. According to NASA, the researchers aim to follow three main parameters:

  • Germination Shows that minimum environmental factors for Earth-normal growth are available; sensitive to hazards, temperature, moisture and light.
  • Phototropism Shows that plants on the Moon responds normally to external environmental cues
  • Circumnutation Shows that Earth-normal endogenous growth patterns and growth rates are expressed in lunar conditions

Citizen science!

Meanwhile on Earth, the second part of the project would be underway – one which would involve thousands of citizen scientists, mostly in high schools and universities. To see how the plants’ germination fairs on the moon, you need to compare the evolution to the same plants back on Earth and the more data you have, the more you statistically become relevant. So NASA will send schools all over the country the same lunar plant habitats which will be investigated in hundreds or thousands of different points. Basically, instead of spending a tonne of money on replicating your experiment, you crowdsource it! At the same time, you provide an incredibly rich educational experience, not to mention you involve thousands of young minds in a project that is well beyond the barriers of our own planet. That’s something you don’t see every day.

After LPX-0 demonstrates germination and initial growth in lunar gravity and radiation, NASA will launch subsequent missions which will test : 1) long term, over-lunar-night experiments, 2) multi-generation experiments, 3) Diverse plants. The implications are clear: you can prove or disprove whether or not the astronauts can sustainably live on the moon, but the findings could also help scientists studying plant growth back on Earth too.

Earth is a paradise for life, still it is riddled here and there with all sorts of  inhospitable areas. Dr. Robert Bowman, the team’s chief biologist, described how plants constantly have to cope with harsh environments and threats: “Simply knowing how plants deal with stress on the moon can really tell us a lot about how they deal with stress right here on Earth.” In the face of climate change, the moon could tell us a great deal.

Neil Armstrong’s iconic first steps and words as he touched down on the moon’s surface still echo to this day and have become a symbol of mankind reaching for the stars. What kind of mark would a plant make?

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,” Dr. Pete Worden, Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center said.



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