For the first time, scientists have grown plants in lunar soil collected by NASA’s Apollo astronauts.
Scientists had no idea if anything was growing in the moon’s dirt. They wanted to see if it could be used to grow food by the next generation of lunar explorers. The results surprised them.
Robert Ferl of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences was surprised at the results. “Plants actually grow in lunar thing. Are you joke me?” he said.
Ferl and other researchers planted Thale cress, a small flowering plant, in lunar soil returned from the Apollo missions. The good news is that all the seeds have sprouted.
The bad news was that after the first week, the lunar soil stressed the plants so much that they grew slowly. Most moon plants ended up being stunted, that is, small or not fully grown.
The results of the study appeared recently in the publication Communications Biology.
The longer the soil was exposed to radiation and the solar wind on the moon, the more the plants seemed to deteriorate. The soil collected by the Apollo 11 mission was the least suitable for growth. It was exposed a few billion more years to the elements, the scientists said.
Simon Gilroy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison was not part of the study. He said, “It’s a big step forward to know that you can grow plants.” Gilroy added: “The real next step is to go do it on the surface of the moon.”
Moon dirt is full of glass particles from micrometeorite repercussions. These particles entered the Apollo lunar landers and wore out the moonwalkers’ spacesuits.
One solution could be to use younger geologic spots on the moon, like lava flows, to excavate the ground. The environment could also be modified by adding special nutrient blends or artificial lighting.
Only 382 kilograms of lunar rock and soil were brought back by the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon. Most of them are still locked away, forcing researchers to experiment on Earth with soils made up of volcanic ash.
Early last year, NASA finally donated 12 grams of soil to researchers at the University of Florida for the planting experiment. NASA has said the time has finally come for such an experiment, with the space agency looking to put astronauts back on the moon in a few years.
The best situation would be for future astronauts to use local soil for indoor planting instead of setting up a hydroponic or all-water system, the scientists said.
Sharmila Bhattacharya is a NASA program scientist for space biology. Bhattacharya used the term optimize – which means to make something as good or as efficient as possible – to describe the work ahead of us.
She said: “The fact that something has grown means that we have a very good starting point, and now the question is how to optimize and improve.”
Florida scientists hope to reuse their lunar soil later this year, planting more watercress before eventually moving on to other plants.
I am John Russell.
Marcia Dunn reported this story for The Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
words in this story
lunar – adj. of or pertaining to the moon
child – v. talk to (someone) in a way that is not serious: say things that are not true for (someone) in a joking way
micrometeorite — n. a meteorite so small that it can pass through the Earth’s atmosphere without heating up intensely; a very small particle in interplanetary space