For the first time in history, scientists have successfully grown plants in lunar soil brought back from the moon by the Apollo astronauts fifty years ago. NASA’s Artemis mission plans to return humans to the moon by 2025. It would be the first crewed lunar landing mission since Apollo 17 in 1972. Alongside the U.S., China and Russia are also pursuing lunar research and, towards that end, have partnered up to build a joint lunar station.
With NASA and other space agencies spending much of their resources on exploring Mars, the moon has taken a backseat for space researchers and astronauts in recent decades. However, all that is about to change soon, especially with the Artemis program mentioned above that was announced back in 2017. As part of the program, NASA plans to explore the lunar South Pole and build a long-term human presence on the Moon.
In a study published in the journal Communications Biology, researchers at the University of Florida Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research said they planted thale cress seeds (scientific name: Arabidopsis thaliana) in vials containing lunar regolith. Lunar soil is starkly different from the soil on earth and contains glass fragments that are “quite sharp and angular,” according to geologist Stephen Elardo. It also contains metallic iron and lacks organic material, unlike terrestrial soil. Given the significant differences in properties between soil on earth and soil on the moon, researchers were unsure whether the seeds would germinate, but to their surprise, they did.
According to Anna-Lisa Paul, the study’s co-leader, the researchers were elated with the “abundance of green sprouts all over the samples,” proving that plants could grow in the lunar regolith. The success of the experiment, she said, could open the door to similar studies in the future on the moon and possibly, even on Mars. However, the investigation was not an unqualified success, as the plants in the lunar regolith didn’t grow as fast and as well as the ones on volcanic ash from the Earth. The researchers also found that the plants struggled the most in ‘mature’ lunar soil with more prolonged exposure to cosmic rays and solar wind on the lunar surface. Scientists picked volcanic ash as the control substance due to its composition and particle size, which are similar to that of the lunar regolith.
Paul also had exciting news for those wondering about the safety of plants grown in lunar soil. In a news conference, she said that plants grown in lunar regolith are likely to be fit for human consumption. However, more research would be needed to find out exactly how lunar soil affects the nutritional value of food. For example, scientists had earlier grown chilies in space, but they used regular soil from Earth for that experiment. Now that lunar soil has been proven to be capable of growing plants. It is good news that these crops grown would be acceptable for human consumption. That would also be music to the ears of researchers who are looking to explore more of the lunar surface and establish a permanent base on the moon in the coming decades.