Cress grown in lunar soil could lead to crops on the moon, scientists say

An Arabidopsis plant sprouting from lunar soil. Credit: University of Florida

Scientists have grown plants in soil from the moon for the first time ever.

Researchers had no idea if anything would sprout in the harsh moon dirt and wanted to see if it could be used to grow food by the next generation of lunar explorers. The results stunned them.

“Holy cow. Plants actually grow in lunar stuff. Are you kidding me?” said Robert Ferl of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Mr Ferl and his colleagues planted thale cress in moon soil returned by Apollo 11′s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, as well as other moonwalkers.

What is moon soil?

Lunar soil is full of tiny, glass fragments from micrometeorite impacts. It ended up sullying the Apollo spaceships' interiors and wore down the moonwalkers’ spacesuits.

How did the researcher's experiment go?

When the University of Florida's researchers planted the cress in the dirt, all of the seeds sprouted.

The downside was that after the first week, the coarseness and other properties of the lunar soil stressed the small, flowering weeds so much that they grew slower than seedlings planted in fake moon dirt from Earth. Most of the moon plants ended up stunted.

The longer the soil was exposed to punishing cosmic radiation and solar wind on the moon, the worse the plants seemed to do. The Apollo 11 samples - exposed a couple billion years longer to the elements because of the Sea of Tranquility’s older surface - were the least conducive for growth, according to scientists.

One solution might be to use younger geologic spots on the moon, like lava flows, for digging up planting soil. The environment also could be tweaked, altering the nutrient mixture or adjusting the artificial lighting.

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Has the moon soil from NASA's missions been used for anything else?

Only 382 kilograms of moon rocks and soil were brought back by six Apollo crews. Some of the earliest moon dust was sprinkled on plants under quarantine with the Apollo astronauts in Houston after returning from the moon.

Most of the lunar stash remained locked away, forcing researchers to experiment with simulated soil made of volcanic ash on Earth. NASA finally doled out 12 grams to the University of Florida researchers early last year, and the long-awaited planting took place last May in a lab.

NASA said the timing for such an experiment was finally right, with the space agency looking to put astronauts back on the moon in a few years.

Researchers look at plates containing small amounts of lunar soil and just planted Arabidopsis seeds. Credit: University of Florida

What are the implications of the experiment?

The study is a step towards one day growing plants on the moon, scientists said.

It could also lead to astronauts using available local dirt for indoor planting, versus setting up a hydroponic, or all-water, system.

“The fact that anything grew means that we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how do we optimise and improve,” said Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA’s program scientist for space biology,

The Florida scientists hope to recycle their lunar soil later this year, planting more thale cress before possibly moving on to other vegetation.

The results of the experiment were published in the Communications Biology journal.