CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — 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 the next 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 from Apollo 11 and other moonwalkers by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The good news: all the seeds have 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 due to the Sea of Tranquility’s older surface, 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 (382 kilograms) of lunar rock and soil were brought back by six Apollo crews. Some of the earliest lunar dust was sprinkled on plants quarantined by the Apollo astronauts in Houston after returning from the moon.
Most of the lunar supply remained sealed, forcing researchers to experiment with simulated Earth made from volcanic ash on Earth. NASA finally distributed 12 grams to researchers at the University of Florida early last year, and the long-awaited planting took place in a lab last May.
NASA said the timing was finally right for such an experiment, as the space agency aims to put astronauts back on the moon in a few years.
The ideal situation would be for future astronauts to use the endless supply of available local soil for indoor planting, rather than setting up a hydroponic or pure water system, scientists said.
“The fact that everything has grown means we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how can we tweak and improve,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s space biology program scientist.
The Florida scientists hope to recycle their lunar soil later this year and plant more thale cress before potentially moving on to other vegetation.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.