Science

Will we be able to grow plants on the Moon tomorrow?

Take a few teaspoons of lunar soil, some water, arabiidopsi thaliana seeds (selected for resistance to harsh environments and a well-known genetic code), stir, add nutrient solution daily and… Watch. Such is the experience conducted by a group of herbal exobiologist researchers at the University of Florida, whose results have just been published in the journal Communications Biology. Even if a few grams of lunar regolith still belong to the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions, that is, they are over fifty years old (but they are perfectly preserved), what was their surprise when they saw that the plants germinated in … two days !

The germination process has started

What’s more, scientists who had the reflex to plant seeds in other control samples, either with soil from our planet or with soil that mimics Martian soil, were able to observe that growth occurred in the same way “until the sixth day,” according to Anna. —Lisa Paul, lead author of the American study. But after that, the lunar plants grew more slowly than other plants with stunted roots. “From this original experiment, it should be remembered that the germination process before the appearance of the first leaves worked,” explains Caroline Freycinet, CNRS researcher in planetary science and astrochemistry at the Laboratory of Atmospheres, Milieu, Spatial Observations (LATMOS) of the Observatory. Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. Then there is a slowdown, but the dynamics remain positive.”

Twenty days later, a team from the University of Florida held a small harvest to study the DNA of lunar plants. The researchers found that they grew in the same way as in a hostile environment, that is, in soil too rich in minerals or heavy metals. Before explaining: they “grow more slowly and show more signs of stress when grown in lunar soil samples collected during the Apollo missions than in volcanic ash from Earth.” Thus, DNA research has shown that genes respond to ionic (salt) and oxidative (metals) stress. “In a sense, this work points to what is contained in the lunar soil that limits the growth of plants,” continues Caroline Freycinet. – No extensions, we can determine, for example, what type of metals to remove from this soil in order to ensure better plant growth. .”

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Development of power sources for future astronauts

There is still a long way to go before we hope to see a vegetable garden on the surface of the Moon, and even more so on the Red Planet, like Matt Damon in Alone on Mars, who survives by cultivating a field of potatoes. , especially fertilizing the barren Martian soil with their own excrement. “This is just a basic science experiment with its limitations: seeds were planted in this earth that was on glass wool, soaked in nutrients, watered with earth water and illuminated by earth light and oxygen. The soil does not make the seeds germinate. .

Thus, we are closer to above-ground culture than to a classical plantation,” adds Caroline Freycinet, for whom it remains essential that the lunar regolith “does not interfere with the cultivation of plants.” This means this research opens up new prospects for growing plants directly on the moon, which would save astronauts from loading expensive food cargo aboard their spacecraft and offer hope for a solution for longer missions, summarized Bill Nelson, head of the American Space Agency (NASA). , after reading an article by researchers at the University of Florida: “We will need to use the resources of the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living in deep space.”

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From now on, scientists will try to understand what means can be used to make the lunar environment and climate more hospitable in order to grow vegetation directly on the moon. “When the Americans return to the moon at the end of the decade, the use of resources — such as extracting water from rocks or using the environment to grow plants — will become the focus of the Artemis program,” Caroline Freyssinet concludes. First, learn to live on the surface of our natural satellite. Then imagine doing the same on Mars.

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