CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ( Associated Press) — For the first time, scientists have grown plants in lunar soil collected by NASA astronauts.
Scientists had no idea if anything would sprout from the hard lunar soil and wanted to see if it could be used to grow food for the next generation of lunar explorers. The results surprised them.
“Plants sprout in lunar soil. Really?” said Robert Ferl of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Ferl and his colleagues planted an Arabidopsis thaliana in lunar soil brought to Earth by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and other moonwalkers. All the seeds germinated.
The downside is that after the first week, the roughness and other properties of the lunar soil affected the plants so much that they grew more slowly than those planted in fake lunar soil from Earth. Most of the lunar plants stagnated.
The results were published Thursday by the journal Communications Biology.
The more the soil was exposed to the cosmic gradation and solar wind on the Moon, the worse off the plants fared. The Apollo 11 samples — exposed for about 2 billion more years to the elements due to the age of the Sea of Tranquility’s surface — were the least likely to grow, according to the scientists.
“It’s 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 was not involved in the study. “The next real step is to do it on the surface of the Moon.”
The lunar soil is littered with tiny glass fragments caused by micrometeorite impacts.
One solution could be to use geologically younger places on the Moon, such as lava flows, to excavate soil for planting. The environment could also be modified, by altering the nutrient mix or adjusting the artificial light.
Only 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of lunar rocks and soil were brought back by six Apollo crews. Some of the initial samples of lunar dust were sprinkled on quarantined plants with the astronauts in Houston after returning from the Moon.
Most of the samples remained locked up, forcing scientists to experiment with simulated soil made from volcanic ash on Earth. NASA finally provided 12 grams of lunar soil to researchers at the University of Florida early last year, and the long-awaited cultivation occurred last May in a laboratory.
NASA said the time for such an experiment was finally right, with the agency planning to send astronauts to the moon again in a few years.
The ideal situation would be for future astronauts to take advantage of the local soil to plant in greenhouses, rather than having to set up a hydroponic system — based solely on water — the scientists said.
“The fact that something sprouted means that we already have a good starting point and now the question is how do we optimize and improve it,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s program scientist for space biology.
Scientists in Florida hope to recycle their lunar soil this year, planting more Arabidopsis thaliana before possibly moving on to other vegetation.