CAP CANAVERAL, FL (AP) – For the first time, scientists have grown plants in the soil from the moon, collected by NASA astronauts Apollo.
Researchers had no idea whether anything would germinate in the harsh lunar mud, and wanted to know if it could be used to grow food by the next generation of lunar researchers. The results stunned them.
“Holy cow. Plants actually grow in lunar matter. Are you kidding?” said Robert Ferrell of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida.
Ferl and his colleagues planted cress in lunar soil, which was returned by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, as well as other lunar walkers. The good news is: all the seeds have germinated.
The downside was that after the first week the roughness and other properties of the lunar soil strained the small flowering weeds so hard that they grew slower than seedlings planted in fake lunar dirt from Earth. Most lunar plants ended up undersized.
The results were published Thursday in Communications Biology.
The longer the soil was exposed to punitive cosmic radiation and the solar wind on the moon, the worse the plants seemed to become. Scientists claim that specimens of Apollo 11, which have been exposed to elements for a couple of billion years longer because of the old surface of the Sea of Tranquility, have been the least conducive to growth.
“It’s a big step forward to learn 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 real next step is to do it on the surface of the moon.”
The moon’s dirt is full of tiny shards of glass from the impact of micrometeorites, which fell everywhere in the lunar spacecraft “Apollo” and demolished the spacesuits of lunar rovers.
One solution may be to use younger geological spots on the moon, such as lava flows, to excavate soil for planting. The environment can also be adjusted by changing the nutrient mixture or adjusting the artificial lighting,
Only 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar stones and soil were delivered by six Apollo crews. Apollo astronauts in Houston after returning from the moon sprinkled some of the earliest lunar dust quarantined plants.
Most of the lunar shelters remained locked, forcing researchers to experiment with simulated volcanic ash soil on Earth. NASA finally issued 12 grams to researchers from the University of Florida early last year, and the long-awaited landing took place last May in the lab.
NASA has said that the time for such an experiment has finally been right, and the space agency plans to return the astronauts to the moon in a few years.
The ideal situation would be for future astronauts to take advantage of the endless reserves of available local mud for landing indoors compared to creating a hydroponic or high-water system, scientists say.
“The fact that something has grown means that we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how we are optimizing and improving,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, a NASA scientist in space biology.
Scientists from Florida hope to recycle their lunar soil later this year by planting more watercress before possibly switching to other vegetation.
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