For the first time, scientists have grown plants in the moon’s soil collected by NASA’s Apollo astronauts.
The researchers had no idea if anything would sprout in the moon’s harsh soil and wanted to see if it could be used to grow food by a new generation of lunar explorers. The results stunned them.
“Damn cow. Plants actually grow in moon 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 seacress in lunar soil returned by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and other moonwalkers years ago and 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 Earth lunar soil.
Most moon plants ended up being stunted. The results were published Thursday in Communications Biology.
The longer the soil was exposed to cosmic radiation and solar wind on the moon, the more plants seemed to degrade.
The samples from Apollo 11 – exposed a few billion more years to the elements due to the older surface of the Lunar Sea of Tranquility – were the least conducive to growth, the scientists said.
“It’s 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 do it on the surface of the moon.”
Lunar dirt is full of tiny shards of glass from micrometeor impacts that have spread all over the Apollo lunar landers and worn down the space suits of moon walkers.
One solution could be to use younger geologic spots on the moon, such as lava flows, to dig up planting soil. The environment could also be changed, by altering the nutrient mix or adjusting artificial lighting.
Only 842 pounds of moon rock and soil were brought back by six Apollo crews, and most of it was locked away.
Nasa finally distributed 12 grams to researchers at the University of Florida early last year, and the long-awaited planting took place last May in a lab.