Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
spotlight AP

Scientists grow plants in lunar dirt; next stop moon

  • Updated
  • 0
Support this work for $1 a month

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — For the first time, scientists have grown plants in soil from the moon collected by NASA's Apollo astronauts.

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.

Ferl and his colleagues planted thale cress in moon soil returned by Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and other moonwalkers. The good news: 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 more slowly than seedlings planted in fake moon dirt from Earth. Most of the moon plants ended up stunted.

Results were published Thursday in Communications Biology.

Moon Plant

In this 2021 photo provided by the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, a researcher harvests a thale cress plant growing in lunar soil at a laboratory in Gainesville, Fla.

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.

"This is a big step forward to know that you can grow plants," said Simon Gilroy, a space plant biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who had no role in the study. "The real next step is to go and do it on the surface of the moon."

Moon dirt is full of tiny, glass fragments from micrometeorite impacts that got everywhere in the Apollo lunar landers and wore down the moonwalkers' spacesuits.

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,

Only 842 pounds (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.

The ideal situation would be for future astronauts to tap into the endless supply of available local dirt for indoor planting versus setting up a hydroponic, or all-water, system, scientists said.

"The fact that anything grew means that we have a really good starting point, and now the question is how do we optimize 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.

0 Comments

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Boeing's astronaut capsule has arrived at the International Space Station in a critical repeat test flight. Only a test dummy was aboard the capsule for Friday's docking, a huge achievement for Boeing after years of false starts. The only other time Boeing's Starliner flew in space, it never got anywhere near the station. This time, the overhauled Starliner made it to the right orbit following Thursday's launch from Florida. With Starliner's arrival, NASA finally realizes its longtime effort to have crew capsules from competing U.S. companies flying to the space station. SpaceX already has a running start.

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has hit 1 million, less than 2 1/2 years into the outbreak. That is a once-unimaginable figure that only hints at the multitudes of loved ones and friends staggered by grief and frustration. The figure is based on data kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of dead is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every day for 336 days. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans who died in the Civil War and World War II combined. It’s as if Boston and Pittsburgh were wiped out. Some of those left behind say they cannot return to normal. They replay their loved ones’ voicemail messages. Or watch old videos to see them dance. When other people say they are done with the virus, they bristle with anger or ache in silence.

The Food and Drug Administration's commissioner says a shuttered baby formula factory could be up and running by next week. FDA Commissioner Robert Califf faced congressional anger Thursday for not answering questions about whether his agency should have intervened earlier at the Michigan plant tied to a national formula shortage. Members of a House subcommittee questioned Califf about why the FDA didn’t step in when there were signs of problems at Abbott Nutrition's plant last fall before it was closed. The shortage has rattled parents and become a political headwind for President Joe Biden, who’s invoked the Defense Production Act to ease supply. Califf asked lawmakers for new food safety funding.

Boeing's crew capsule has blasted off on a repeat test flight to the International Space Station. Only a test dummy was on board for Thursday’s launch from Cape Canaveral. It's Boeing’s third shot at the flight demo. Two previous attempts were marred by software flaws and stuck valves. If the capsule reaches the space station Friday and everything else goes well, NASA test pilots could strap in by the end of this year for the company’s first astronaut flight. Boeing is trying to catch up with SpaceX, which has been flying NASA crews for two years.

A Defense Department-funded “resiliency review” finds Parris Island facing growing threats from climate change. The South Carolina military base has molded recruits into Marines for more than a century. Now experts say three-quarters of the island could be under water during high tides each day by 2099. Military authorities say they can keep the base intact through small-scale changes, like raising roads and equipment during existing projects. Others advocate much more expensive solutions, such as spending millions on seawalls to avoid spending billions to repair hurricane damage. But to date there is no grand overhaul planned.

President Joe Biden’s order to protect the nation’s oldest woodlands is raising a simple but vexing question: When does a forest grow old? The answer could affect millions of acres of federally-managed forests where environmentalists want logging restricted as climate change, wildfires and other problems devastate vast forests. Scientists say there's no simple formula for what's old — in part because growth rates among species can vary greatly. That’s likely to complicate Biden’s efforts to protect older forests as part of his faltering climate change fight, with key pieces stalled in Congress. Underlining the issue's urgency are wildfires that have killed thousands of California's giant sequoias in recent years.

A NASA spacecraft on Mars is losing power and is headed for a dusty demise. The InSight lander has just a couple more months of science work before succumbing to the Martian dust on its solar panels. NASA said Tuesday it will keep using the spacecraft's seismometer to detect marsquakes until the power peters out. Officials expect operations to cease in July, almost four years after InSight's arrival at Mars. InSight is one of three NASA spacecraft operating on the Martian surface. Rovers Curiosity and Perseverance are still going strong, thanks to nuclear power.

Federal officials have accused a company that runs a Virginia facility breeding dogs for research of violating animal welfare law and recently seized at least 145 beagles found to be in acute distress. That's according to a lawsuit the government filed Thursday against Envigo RMS. The facility in Cumberland County has been under increasing scrutiny for months, drawing concerns from animal rights groups, members of Congress and Virginia lawmakers. Repeated federal inspections since Envigo acquired the facility in 2019 have found dozens of violations. A spokesman said the company was working on a statement and would have a response Friday.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News