Scientists have grown plants in lunar soil for the first time, an important step towards making long-term stays on the moon possible.
NASA plans to land humans on the moon for the first time since 1972 in a mission scheduled for 2025.
But while that adventure seems three years away, Researchers at the University of Florida received some samples of moon soil, also called lunar regolith, from NASA to conduct an experiment to see if the soil could support plant growth.
The small samples of soil came from the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions to the moon between 1969 and 1972.
Using thimble-sized wells in plastic plates, researchers potted approximately a gram of lunar soil, moistened it with a nutrient solution and added thale cress seeds — a plant also known as Arabidopsis thaliana that’s native to Eurasia and Africa and easy to grow. The researchers then put the trays into terrarium boxes and added nutrient solution daily, NASA said. A control group used volcanic ash as soil.
Much to their surprise, the seeds sprouted after two days.
Anna-Lisa Paul, a University of Florida professor who co-authored a paper on the findings said:
“I can’t tell you how astonished we were,” said
“Every plant – whether in a lunar sample or in a control – looked the same up until about day six.”
After that, differences emerged. The plants grown in moon soil started to show stress, developed more slowly and ended up stunted.
But those involved say it is a breakthrough – and one that has earthly implications.
NASA’s chief Bill Nelson said:
“This research is critical to Nasa’s long-term human exploration goals as we’ll need to use resources found on the to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space,” said
“This fundamental plant growth research is also a key example of how Nasa is working to unlock agricultural innovations that could help us understand how plants might overcome stressful conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth.”
One challenge for researchers is that there simply is not much lunar soil to experiment with. Over a three-year period from 1969, Nasa astronauts brought back 382kg (842lb) of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the lunar surface.
The University of Florida team were given just 1g of soil per plant for the experiment from the samples, which have been kept locked away for decades.