Growing plants on the moon would be of particular importance to NASA’s Artemis program: For the first time since the “Apollo 17” mission in 1972, the US space agency wants to get people back to the moon and set up a base there – if possible against the end of the decade.
In this project, plants could not only simplify the crew’s diet, but also produce oxygen. “You want a closed cycle in which everything is recycled,” explains Mall, referring to, among other things, 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 investigating whether this would even be possible on the loose material on the moon. This so-called regolith was formed by the intensive bombardment of the moon with meteorites. Over the millions of years, the impacts shattered and crushed the rock into a kind of sand that sometimes covered the surface of the Earth’s satellite several meters high.
The main difference from terrestrial soils: “On Earth, the soil is biologically influenced,” Mall says, referring to plants, animals, and microorganisms. “That’s missing on the moon.”
Twelve germs on twelve grams of soil
For the study, the team had only about 12 grams of lunar material available, which “Apollo” missions 11, 12 and 17 had returned to Earth from their respective landing sites. The material is 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 on the substrate. This plant, which is also widespread in Germany, is used in biology as a model organism, partly because the genome has been completely sequenced.
First, all twelve seeds germinated. “We didn’t predict that,” said lead author Anna-Lisa Paul. “It showed us that lunar soils do not interfere with the hormones and signals involved in plant germination.” However, problems soon emerged that did not arise with the control plants in terrestrial substrate similar to the lunar material: the plants grew more slowly, remained smaller, discolored themselves and generally varied widely.
Older material is less suitable
The researchers interpret all this as a sign of stress. Further analysis revealed that gene activity was comparable to that of plants exposed to adverse factors such as salt, metals or oxidative stress. “From this we infer that the plants found the lunar soil to be stressful,” says Paul.
However, the team recorded noticeable differences between the different lunar substrates: plants thrived worst on the material the “Apollo” mission 11 had brought to Earth. The lunar regolith at this landing site – unlike the areas of “Apollo 12” and “Apollo 17” – is older and therefore exposed to cosmic rays and the solar wind for longer. These streams of charged particles constantly rain down on the lunar material, enriching it in particular with hydrogen and helium ions.
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