For the first time, scientists have grown plants in lunar soil collected by Nasa’s Apollo astronauts.
The researchers had no idea if anything would sprout in the hard lunar soil and wanted to see if a new generation of lunar explorers could use it to grow food. The results amazed her.
“Holy shit. Plants actually grow in lunar material. Are you kidding me?” said Robert Ferl of the University of Florida Department of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Ferl and his colleagues planted thale cress in lunar soil brought back years ago by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from Apollo 11 and other moonwalkers, and the seeds sprout.
The downside was that after the first week, the coarseness and other characteristics of the lunar soil stressed the small, flowering weeds so much that they grew slower than seedlings planted in fake lunar earth soil.
Most moon plants withered away. The results were published Thursday in Communications Biology.
The longer the soil on the moon was exposed to the punitive cosmic rays and solar wind, the worse off plants seemed to be.
The Apollo 11 samples, which had been exposed to the elements a few billion years longer because of the older surface of the lunar sea of calm, were the least growth-promoting, according to scientists.
“Realizing that you can grow plants is a huge step forward,” said Simon Gilroy, a space plant biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved in the study. “The real next step is to do it on the lunar surface.”
Moondirt is riddled with tiny glass fragments from micrometeorite impacts that landed all over the Apollo lunar landers, wearing down the lunar walkers’ space suits.
One solution could be to use younger geological sites on the moon, like lava flows, to dig up potting soil. The environment could also be optimized by changing the nutrient mix or adjusting the artificial lighting.
Only 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil were brought back by six Apollo crews, and most was locked away.
Early last year, Nasa finally distributed 12 grams to researchers at the University of Florida, and the long-awaited planting took place in a lab last May.