Astronauts will soon grow plants on the Moon

Friday, 05 April, 2024

Astronauts will soon grow plants on the Moon

NASA has announced that, when humans take their first steps back on the Moon after 50 years during the Artemis III mission, astronauts will cultivate and return lunar-grown plants to Earth for the first time. Known as Lunar Effects on Agricultural Flora (LEAF), the project will collect plant growth and development data that will help scientists understand the use of plants grown for both human nutrition and life support on the Moon and beyond.

The consortium of partners who will pioneer this initiative includes a core group from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space (Plants for Space, or P4S), headquartered at The University of Adelaide. The project is being led by Space Lab Technologies and involves The University of Adelaide, La Trobe University and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center — all P4S partners — as well as the US Department of Agriculture, the University of Colorado Boulder and Purdue University, with additional analysis to be conducted by the P4S node at The University of Western Australia.

P4S Chief Investigator Jenny Mortimer, an associate professor of plant synthetic biology at The University of Adelaide, said the mission will tell us how plants respond in an off-Earth environment, and how well we can build a robust, fully contained environment that allows them to thrive. She explained, “The data we capture from the mission, both from the lunar surface and what we learn when we analyse the samples upon return, will help us to design the lunar and Martian crops of the future.”

Professor Mathew Lewsey, of P4S and the La Trobe Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and Food, added that the LEAF investigation would provide information about how plants could grow in extreme conditions. “The seeds we send to the Moon will germinate in an enclosed capsule, which we will be monitoring through a remote camera,” he said.

“Our team of scientists will collect data on the plants as they grow on the moon, monitoring their size and morphology, then conduct genetic and metabolic analyses of individual cells when the plants return to Earth.

“We can then apply this knowledge to improve plant resilience to radiation and other environmental challenges.”

The LEAF experiment includes a plant growth chamber with an isolated atmosphere, housing red and green varieties of Brassica rapa (Wisconsin Fast Plants), Wolffia (duckweed) and Arabidopsis thaliana. Experiments undertaken as part of the program will progress P4S goals to develop novel plant-based foods and biomanufacturing technologies that assist humans to explore deeper into space than ever before, while also advancing on-Earth sustainability and efficiency.

“LEAF has been made possible by bringing together world-leading skillsets in engineering, plant science, molecular analysis and space logistics — it is a perfect representation of what P4S is here to do, to assist in delivering a new frontier for humanity,” said P4S Director Matthew Gilliham, a professor at the University of Adelaide.

“The learnings and technologies we gain by growing plants in a completely closed loop, as we must do in space, will provide new options for improving sustainable plant production and processing here on Earth.”

The Head of the Australian Space Agency, Enrico Palermo, said P4S’s involvement in Artemis is a major vote of confidence in Australia’s space sector. “Importantly too, the technologies and practices developed as part of Plants for Space will improve life on Earth and benefit all Australians by addressing challenges like food security and water scarcity,” he said.

LEAF is one of three projects so far announced for deployment on the Moon’s surface as part of NASA’s Artemis III mission in September 2026, all of which will be set up near the lunar South Pole. The other two are: the Lunar Environment Monitoring Station, a compact, autonomous seismometer suite designed to carry out continuous, long-term monitoring of ‘moonquakes’; and the Lunar Dielectric Analyzer, which will measure the regolith’s ability to propagate an electric field — a key parameter in the search for lunar volatiles, especially ice.

Image caption: Artist’s concept of an Artemis astronaut deploying an instrument on the lunar surface. Image credit: NASA.

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