NASA teams with Google to grow plants on the moon by 2015 to create habitable environment
Everyone dreams about what living on some distant celestial body would be like. The human race has only ever stepped foot on our moon, though, and it’s not a habitable environment. However, NASA is looking to change that, starting with growing plants on the lunar surface.
While we’re not even remotely close to having sci-fi domed habitable zones on anything but Earth, growing plants is a vital step toward sustainability in a new environment. Aside from the obvious life support that vegetation would provide — air, food, and water — it would also provide another integral aspect to a habitable lunar environment. Plants react to aspects of a harsh environment similarly to humans, as their genetic material can be damaged by radiation. A relatively safe way to test long-term lunar exposure is to send some plants up there and monitor their health. NASA likens this to being like sending acanary into a coal mine. Rather than making the trip and dropping the plants off itself, NASA plans to use commercial spaceflight as the vehicle by which the plants will be sent up to the moon.
Obviously, the plants can’t be embedded into the lunar surface then left alone, so NASA is constructing a small, lightweight (a little over two pounds), self-sustaining habitat for the vegetation. The habitat will be delivered to the moon via the Moon Express, a lunar lander that’s part of the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition to create a robotic spacecraft that can fly to and land on the moon.
Once the lander arrives on the moon, water will be added to basil, turnip, and Arabidopsis (a small flowering plant) seeds kept in the habitat, then monitored for five to 10 days and compared to controls back on Earth. NASA will also monitor the actual habitat itself, looking toward its scalability since a two-pound habitat won’t support human life. Currently, the chamber can support 10 basil seeds, 10 turnip seeds, and around 100 Arabidopsis seeds. It also holds the bit of water that initiates the germination process, and uses the natural sunlight that reaches the moon to support the plant life.
In order to study the quality of the plant growth and movement, the habitat will take images and beam them back home.
If NASA doesn’t run into any unexpected bumps, its long-term plans include attempting to grow a more diverse crop of plants, longer growth periods, and reproduction experiments. The longer the experiments, the more we’ll learn about the long-term effects of a lunar environment on Earth plants. Growing turnips on the moon in a man-made pod won’t directly lead to Luna Park, but its an important step toward a long-term stay on the lunar surface.
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