Growing plants on the moon would be of particular interest to NASA’s Artemis program: the US space agency wants to put people back on the moon for the first time since the “Apollo 17” mission in 1972 and establish a base there, if possible at the end of the decade of the year.
In this project, the plants could not only simplify the crew’s diet, but also produce oxygen. “You want a closed loop where everything is recycled,” Mall explains, referring, among other things, to the carbon dioxide (CO₂) emitted by humans. »Plants would play an important role in this cycle.
“Artemis requires a better understanding of how plants grow in space,” explains co-author Rob Ferl. For future larger space missions, we could use the moon as a hub or launch pad. So it makes sense to use the soil that is already there to grow plants.
The researchers are now testing whether this would be possible in loose material on the moon. This so-called regolith was formed by the intense bombardment of the moon with meteorites. Over millions of years, the impacts broke up the rock and turned it into a kind of sand that sometimes covered the surface of the Earth’s satellite several meters high.
The key difference from terrestrial soils: “On Earth, soils are biologically influenced,” says Mall, referring to plants, animals, and microorganisms. “That is missing on the moon.”
Twelve germs in twelve grams of soil
For the study, the team only had about 12 grams of lunar material available, which the “Apollo” missions 11, 12 and 17 had brought back to Earth from their respective landing sites. The material was sieved to a grain size of less than one millimeter, provided with rock wool and an aqueous nutrient solution and placed in mini containers of 0.9 grams each.
The researchers then placed thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) seeds in the substrate. This plant, which is also widespread in Germany, is used in biology as a model organism, partly because its genome has been completely sequenced.
First, the twelve seeds germinated. “We didn’t predict that,” says lead author Anna-Lisa Paul. “She showed us that lunar soils do not disrupt the hormones and signals involved in plant germination.” However, problems quickly became apparent that did not occur with control plants in a terrestrial substrate similar to lunar material: plants grew more slowly, stayed smaller, discolored, and varied greatly overall.
Older material is less suitable
Researchers interpret all of this as a sign of stress. A subsequent analysis revealed that the activity of the genes was similar to that of plants exposed to unfavorable factors such as salt, metals or oxidative stress. “From this we infer that the plants found lunar soil conditions stressful,” says Paul.
However, the team recorded notable differences between the various lunar substrates: Plants did worse on material that the “Apollo” 11 mission had brought back to Earth. The lunar regolith at this landing site is, in contrast to the “Apollo 12” and “Apollo 17” areas, older and was therefore more exposed to cosmic rays and the solar wind. These streams of charged particles constantly rain down on the lunar material, enriching it with hydrogen ions and helium in particular.
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