For the first time ever in the history of science and technology, researchers have grown ‘plants’ in lunar soil. This is a huge achievement for the world as it puts humanity a step closer to going off-world.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Bill Nelson, stated “This research is critical to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals as we’ll need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space.”
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In 2025, NASA plans to send astronauts again to the moon and hopes to have a sustained lunar ‘presence’ by 2028. This huge achievement is indeed a milestone because, in that case, the food for astronauts need not be taken from the Earth and instead can be grown on the moon itself. This will potentially help the astronauts in the future to be on Mars as well.
The lunar soil is very different from terrestrial soil and that is posing the biggest challenge to the researchers. The lunar soil is filled with sharp meteorite fragments and is exposed to tons of cosmic radiation. Another major point is that the soil doesn’t contain any organic matter. The researchers never attempted to grow anything on the lunar soil brought back to Earth by the NASA astronauts during the various Apollo missions.
Rob Ferl and Anna Lisa Paul, researchers at the University of Florida, 15 years ago submitted their first of several requests to NASA asking for lunar soil samples. Both the scientists hoped to receive four grams of the soil but received 12 grams from NASA from its three missions.
Anna Paul told CNN “That made a big difference in enabling us to take a deeper look into the science and the efforts of lunar regolith (a layer of unconsolidated solid material covering the bedrock of a planet or on the moon) on plants that we would have otherwise been able to do.”
Robert Ferl responded saying “We first asked the question of whether plants can grow in regolith. And second, how might that one day help humans have an extended stay on the Moon.”
According to the research conducted by the scientists and supporting study, the answer to the first question is a resounding ‘yes’. Plants can be grown in the lunar regolith. The answer to the second question totally depends upon how the plants respond in the lunar soil. The scientists have to be precious with the soil as it is only 12 grams.
For this experiment, the seeds chosen were of the plant thale cress. This plant was chosen because it is well studied and its genetic code has been fully mapped. This will help the researchers study the effect the lunar soil will bring on the plant’s gene expression.
They added a liquid nutrient solution to the lunar soil and sowed the seeds. The researchers didn’t have to wait long, and after two days, the germination had happened to every seed creating history. “We were watching the very first seeds ever in the history of humanity – in the history of the solar system – growing in lunar material,” Paul told Wired.
The scientists observed the process very closely and found on the sixth day that the growth of the plant has slowed down and some of its leaves and roots have become stunted. The development of reddish pigmentation was also recorded. The researchers harvested the plants to study their genetic expression on the 20th day. From these experiments, Paul said that “we can infer that the plants perceive the lunar soil environment as stressful,” as the plants were pulling out the tools to cope with the stress.
Now that the study has confirmed that plants can be grown in the lunar soil, the next step will be to figure out how to help them thrive in it.
Featured Image Source: CNN