November 30, 2013

Mission to grow plants on the moon would have cost $300 million the old way but hitchhiking with the Moon Express Lander in 2015 will cost $2 million and could be a big step for colonization technology

Nasa has announced plans to grow plants on the moon by 2015 in a project designed to further humanity’s chances of successfully colonising space.

Plant growth will be an important part of space exploration in the future as NASA plans for long-duration missions to the moon. NASA scientists anticipate that astronauts may be able to grow plants on the moon, and the plants could be used to supplement meals.

If successful, the Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team will make history by seeding life from Earth on another celestial body for the first time, paving the way for humans to set up more permanent habitation. “If we send plants and they thrive, then we probably can,” says Nasa.

Scientists, contractors and students will work together to create a small 1kg “self-contained habitat” containing seeds and germination material to send to the moon. To get there Nasa plans to ‘hitchhike’, delivering the payload via the Moon Express lander, a commercial spacecraft enrolled in the Google Lunar X Prize. “After landing in late 2015, water will be added to the seeds in the module and their growth will be monitored for 5-10 days and compared to Earth based controls. Seeds will include Arabidopsis, basil, and turnips,” said Nasa.

This will be the first life sciences experiment on another world and an important first step in the utilization of plants for human life support. Follow up experiments will improve the technology in the growth module and allow for more extensive plant experiments.

Points of Contact:
Chris McKay
Arwen Davé
Bob Bowman

Science goal: Study germination of plants in lunar gravity and radiation.

ISRU Goal: (In Situ Resource Utilization) Use the natural sunlight on the Moon for plant germination.

Education goal: Create a simple version of the lunar plant growth chamber that can be reproduced in large numbers for use in K-12 education.

Opportunity: The first Moon Express lander late 2015.

Our concept: To develop a very simple sealed growth chamber that can support germination over a 5-10 day period in a spacecraft on the Moon. Filter paper with dissolved nutrients inside the container can support ~100 seeds of Arabidopsis and 10 seeds each of basil and turnips. Upon landing on the Moon a trigger would release a small reservoir of water wetting the filter paper and initiating germination of the seeds. The air in the sealed container would be adequate to for more than 5 days of growth. No additional air supply or air processing would be necessary. The seedlings would be photographed at intervals with sufficient resolution to compare with growth in Earth controls. We would use the natural sunlight on the moon as the source of illumination for plant germination as a first ISRU (in situ resource utilization) demonstration.

Science background Plant growth at Earth gravity has been well studied and there has been a lot of research on plant growth in microgravity on Shuttle and Space Station. Recently, ISS payloads have been able to simulate partial gravity (eg. Kiss et al. 2012, Planta 236, 635-645.). The surface of the Moon however is the only location in which the effects of both lunar gravity and lunar radiation on plant growth can be studied. Eventually human exploration of the Moon will require plant growth systems for life support. Germination is the first step in plant growth and thus forms the focus of this first experiment. We will also look for phototropism and circumnutation. The basic data from the experiment would be the growth rate, expressed as leaf area, over time. This would be extracted from images of the plant growth area. In addition image data would be collected to investigate both phototropism (plant motion in response to changes in position of the light source) and circumnutation (plant circular motion). The growth and movement of the plants on the Moon would be compared to similar data from Earth controls in identical growth units.

Germination Shows that minimum environmental factors for Earth-normal growth are available; sensitive to hazards, temperature, moisture and light.

Phototropism Shows that plants on the Moon responds normally to external environmental cues

Circumnutation Shows that Earth-normal endogenous growth patterns and growth rates are expressed in lunar conditions

Follow-on science: After LPX-0 demonstrates germination and initial growth in lunar gravity and radiation, we anticipate follow on experiments that expand the biological science. These include: 1) long term, over-lunar-night experiments, 2) multi-generation experiments, 3) Diverse plants.

Survival to 14 days demonstrates plants can sprout in the Moon’s radiation environment at 1/6 g. Survival to 60 days demonstrates that sexual reproduction (meiosis) can occur in a lunar environment. Survival to 180 days shows effects of radiation on dominant & recessive genetic traits. Afterwards, the experiment may run for months through multiple generations, increasing science return.

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