By Zarelle Glen Dorothy A. Villanzana | May 26, 2022
Dome shelters made of lunar bricks cover the rocky satellite, roaming robots assist humans with their everyday work, and a greenhouse is erected particularly designed for agriculture on the moon. It is 2035. A floating ‘dead’ rock is now home to a bustling colony with tall towers and metropolitan-like features, supported by high-end technology.
The above-mentioned scenario would take us into a certain question: Could it be possible for human life to inhabit the moon in the next thirteen years?
To ask about possibilities would usually result in a doubtful response. Without much knowledge, we know very little about tomorrow if not vague predictions. But on May 12, 2022, University of Florida made history and gave optimism for the future with their published research. It is confirmed, plants can actually grow on the moon!
Back in 1969, the first moon landing of Apollo 11 came forth. With his first steps on lunar soil, Neil Armstrong famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” There had been six missions (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17) with two American astronauts aboard each mission to scan the surface of the moon. Three years forward, Apollo 17 broke records of having the longest space walk, the longest lunar landing, and the largest lunar samples brought back to Earth. It was also the last manned mission, with Eugene Cernan, the mission commander of Apollo 17, being the last to leave the moon. “…And as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
Hope certainly came back along with a bag of lunar soil, which was taken away lightly with the help of gravity. Acquiring this vital piece of data made it easier for scientists to study the near terrestrial planet resembling the Earth.
Here are the basics to know if one has dreams of going to the moon:
- There is no atmosphere, thus no protection against the sun’s UV rays, increasing the fatality rate of man despite wearing a spacesuit.
- Days and nights last about 14 Earth days each on the moon; temperatures rise as hot as 123 degrees Celsius, and drop as cold as -233 degrees Celsius.
- Gravity on the Moon is only ⅙ of the Earth’s, thus weakening one’s muscles, bones, and alters the nervous and cardiovascular functions. Exercise would be a necessity to keep oneself physically capable to be able to take a stride in this planetary object.
However, the moon’s soil is very much like the Earth’s in composition, rich in minerals like silicon, aluminum, and magnesium, except that it lacks some others. Most importantly, it is devoid of water. If there’s no water, how can a plant grow on the moon?
One More Small Step for Man
Many questions such as these were also asked by scientists, but a small step to find answers started in the laboratory, particularly, the laboratory of University of Florida (UF). Anna-Lisa Paul and Rob Ferl were the two scientists who delved into the experiment to answer the questions, “Could we have lunar farmers?” or “What would plants do in a lunar greenhouse?” They thought it made sense to use the moon as a launchpad for future longer space missions, thus, to explore these possibilities would greatly benefit the next explorers.
Starting off with only 12 grams of the lunar soil (aka lunar regolith) brought 50 years ago, it meant that merely a few teaspoons were provided for them to use. They had to adjust their experiment on a minuscule scale, and choreograph it properly for a successful outcome, so the researchers decided to use plastic plates (originally for culturing cells) to grow their mini lunar garden. What would be done was simple — plant the seeds on lunar soil, supply it with all basic necessities of a regular plant, and record the results.
Arabidopsis plant seeds were used for the experiment, because it is one of the most studied plants in the world. With scientists being familiar with the plant, it became an asset to the research and was easier to use. Both researchers also planted Arabidopsis in non-lunar soil as a control group.
With the continuation of the experiment, several discoveries were made, such as that the fine and powdery lunar soil is hydrophobic (repellent to water). To aid with the experiment, they mixed water to the soil in order to break this hydrophobicity and uniformly wet the soil. After two days of waiting, it was truly at their great amusement to know that all the seeds they planted had sprouted. “I can’t tell you how astonished we were! Every plant – whether in a lunar sample or in a control – looked the same up until about day six,” Paul expressed.
It took six days before difference between sprouts from the volcanic ash and the control group became apparent. Plants from the lunar soil were smaller, and grew more slowly. They had stunted roots, and some had stunted leaves with sported reddish pigmentation.
These observations led to a few conclusions, and more questions. Yet, as the scientists’ constant search for knowledge carries on, this first time result will certainly be one of the many steps which humanity will take towards the giant leap; perhaps, the picture of a lunar civilization. When this may be, no one can say for sure, but as NASA’s Artemis-3 is set to voyage by 2025–being the first mission since 1972 and sending its first woman and thirteenth man on the lunar surface, the futuristic vision of robots, and domes, and towers on the moon may seemingly come very soon.
Keeter, B. (2022, May 12). Scientists Grow Plants in Lunar Soil. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/biological-physical/scientists-grow-plants-in-soil-from-the-moon/
Life Noggin. (20117, November 30). Why Can’t We Live on The Moon? [Video] Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wG7byaLSmFU
O’Neill, M. (2022, May 14). Scientists Grow Plants in Moon Soil – A First in Human History. SciTechDaily. https://scitechdaily.com/scientists-grow-plants-in-moon-soil-a-first-in-human-history/
Rincon, B. P. (2021, November 10). Nasa’s Moon return pushed back to 2025. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-59231632
Scientists grow plants in lunar soil for the first time. (2022, May 18). World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/05/scientists-grow-plants-in-lunar-soil-for-the-first-time
The Terrestrial Planets (n.d.). NASA. https://history.nasa.gov/EP-177/ch2-2-1.html
Why did we stop going to the Moon? (n.d.). Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/why-did-we-stop-going-moon