Can Plants Grow On The Moon? What the Science Says
The moon figures prominently in our moods, poetry, music, in our literature, and scientific studies, religion, and cultural practices, even gardening and agriculture. That’s why many of us wonder: can we grow plants on the moon?
In general, plants can grow on the moon if all requirements for plant growth are artificially controlled such as atmosphere, water, sunlight, soil, nutrients, and microbial bacteria. Without these, plants from Earth cannot grow on the Moon.
Why is lunar agriculture the topic of so many research papers? When we grow plants on the moon, it means that we create gravity and an atmosphere where there’s none. It also means that mankind has an escape if the earth becomes too toxic for life.
Meanwhile, let’s begin with moon herbs. Read on.
Can Plants Grow on Moon Soil?
Plants can grow on the moon, but not on moon soil. This is because earth plants need nutrients, minerals, moisture, and oxygen, which despite being present in a certain amount in moon soil cannot be absorbed by plants due to the lack of microbes.
Moon soil (also called regolith) is mostly very dry dust that comes from rock, meteors, and meteorites that become powder due to solar heat, solar wind, cosmic rays, meteoric collisions, and extreme heat and cold.
No moisture: Regolith does not contain the moisture found in earth soil simply because any water evaporates quickly from the lunar surface. Since the moon does not have a gaseous layer (atmosphere) like the one that protects the earth from the sun, any exposed liquid will turn to gas and dissipate immediately.
Nutrients in Oxide Form: Plants absorb nutrients from earth soil such as hydrogen (H), carbon (C), nitrogen (N), potassium (K), oxygen (O), and phosphorus (P), as well as secondary nutrients such as boron (B), chlorine (Cl), magnesium (Mg), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), and sulfur (S).
However, moon soil, as demonstrated from the chemical composition contains such nutrients mainly in oxide form. This is not ideal for plant growth.
Lack of Microorganism: Healthy earth soil contains billions of microorganisms: earthworms, fungi, nematodes, and bacteria decompose organic materials, recycle nutrients. These are essential to allow plants to grow. This is the major problem for growing plants on the moon soil.
How Can We Grow Plants on the Moon?
In 2019, a spacecraft from China landed on the dark side of the moon and was reported to successfully germinate cotton seeds in a sealed cylinder. Except for radiation and low gravity, everything inside the biosphere cylinder was Earth-like.
On 7 January, the seeds grew in a sealed container that included water, air, and nutrients. It also contained protection from low gravity, high radiation, and extreme temperatures. (The moon’s surface temperature can reach 250° F in the daytime and -250° F at night.)
The experiment was terminated on 16 January when the nighttime lunar temperature dropped to -52 °C (-62 °F). It was reported that a battery ran out and the biosphere temperature of about 24°C was not maintained.
Despite the presence of water, nutrients, earth soil, light, minerals, and air pressure, the experiment was terminated due to very low temperatures. Meanwhile, back on earth, the following video shows that plants can grow in moon soil.
It’s possible to sprout a seed on the dark side of the lunar surface (where the sun won’t burn it to ashes), and it’s an extremely complicated and expensive activity. But growing plants on the moon is even more complicated and more expensive.
FACTOID: Sunlight on the bright side of the moon is a problem because there’s no atmosphere to shield plants on the lunar surface from atmospheric radiation. The sun’s rays will vaporize water and quickly turn plants into dust.
How is Moon Gravity a Problem?
Agriculture on the moon requires people, plants, equipment, and buildings. All these need to stay put on the lunar surface, which cannot happen with the technique we used on earth because of the lower gravity on the moon.
On earth, gravity keeps us from flying off into space. At the same time, it keeps water on the planet, in the soil, as well as the atmosphere, a blanket of gas and water vapor that ensures plants have the right combination of moisture and sunlight for photosynthesis.
The moon does not have an earth-like atmosphere of gas, clouds, and moisture. That’s why the lunar surface is directly bombarded by rays from the sun that are deadly to living things, humans and plants included.
The astronauts and plants survived moon journeys without gravity but were heavily protected by special clothing, spacecraft cladding, and a specially designed biosphere with earth-like conditions.
FACTOID: On earth, azomite contains the most minerals in one natural source of rock dust. Azomite contains 70 trace minerals as well as calcium, silicon, magnesium, and potassium.
Protected Environment: The Way To Grow Plants on the Moon
The only way to grow Earth plants on the Moon or any other celestial body is to recreate, in such places, the earth conditions necessary for plants to develop and grow. This is possible by building superficial or underground infrastructure where temperature, light, moisture, nutrients and microbes are artificially controlled.
Simply put, a protected environment for growing plants keeps out what can harm plants and keeps in what plants need, such as the following:
Temperature: International travel and commodity exchanges mean that plants from hot weather are being grown in colder areas and vice versa. While plants can adjust or evolve over several years or decades, giving them the right growing temperature is important.
Light: Essential to photosynthesis, a plant’s environment should include the right amount (hours per day) and intensity of sunlight (full or shaded) or artificial grow lights.
Moisture: Without the right amount of moisture, plants die from drowning (overwatering) or desiccation (underwatering, drying out). This is not just about water plants, but also about keeping moisture on the leaves as well as in the air around the leaves.
Nutrients: Here, we’re not just talking about organic and chemical fertilizers. We’re also referring to nutrients kept in the soil long enough for plants to absorb them. This means no leaching out of nutrients due to water runoff, and no competing plants (overcrowding) or grass.
Microbes: There are microbes in the soil as well as in the plants to help in plant growth, flowering, budding, pollination, nutrient recycling, decomposition, fertilizing, and a lot of other unseen systems and processes that feed that world.
This is by no means a complete list of what should be kept in a protected environment for growing plants. For instance, if we’re planning to grow plants on the moon, we have to talk about gravity (or else the plants won’t be able to absorb water and nutrients), protection from atmospheric radiation (or else the plant won’t be able to photosynthesize and create food), and so on.
What Plants Have Been Grown in Space?
In 1982, the Soviet Salyut 7 space station crew were able to grow plants (Arabidopsis) in outer space for the first time. In 1995, the potato was the first vegetable grown on the Space Shuttle Columbia. In 2015, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) ate the lettuce they grew there.
They grew food in space without exposing the plants gravity or sunlight, using closed environments such as :
Veggie (Vegetable Production System) – In May 2014, the Veggie, a luggage-sized container with light emitting diodes (LEDs), was installed on the ISS. There’s room for six (6) plants to grow at any one time. Since 2014, the Veggie has been used to grow seeds of mizuna mustard (Brassica juncea var. japonica), Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis), red Russian kale (Brassica napus var pabularia), zinnia (Zinnia hybrida var. ‘Profusion’), and three types of lettuce.
Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) – an enclosed growth chamber with LED lights, systems to deliver water, nutrients, oxygen, and fertilizer, 180 sensors and cameras. Since 2018, it has grown seeds including Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) and dwarf wheat (Triticum sphaeroco).
Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC) is being designed (as of 2021) to study the effects of space on algae, moss, cyanobacteria, yeasts, and microbes.
More than 20 plants and herbs have been sucessufly grown in space:
- Apogee wheat or full-dwarf hard red spring wheat (Triticum aestivum L.)
- Chinese cabbage or Bok choy (Tokyo Bekana)
- Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)
- Cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’)
- Dill (Anethum graveolens)
- Flax (Linum usitatissimum)
- Garlic (Allium sativum)
- Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana)
- Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
- Onion (Allium cepa)
- Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
- Pea (Pisum sativum)
- Potato (Solanum tuberosum)
- Radish (Raphanus sativus)
- Red romaine lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. ‘Outredgeous’)
- Rice (Oryza sativa)
- Sunflower (Helianthus)
- Tulips (Tulipa)
- Water fern (Ceratopteris richardii)
- Wheat (Triticum)
Space agriculture resulted in new developments in earth-bound farming, including hydroponics, tower gardens, and the discovery that plants need the gravity influence to be able to grow their roots downward. This was discovered in space when plants grew in weak gravity (microgravity) and roots grew in the same direction as stems.
These findings will help shape future activities in lunar agriculture, raising questions such as “How will roots grow downwards in the weak gravity of the moon?”
Meanwhile, we earthbound gardeners continue to find ways to enjoy life, such as by growing moon herbs in moon gardens.
On Earth, of course.
What are Moon Herbs?
Moon herbs have leaves or flowers that resemble the color and shape of the various phases of the moon from its waxing, full, and lunar forms. Other herbs have leaves that reflect the moonlight while others exude scents that perfume the night air. Here are some medicinal and culinary favorites:
Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis): The classic sage has grayish-green leaves that reflect the moonlight. The Tricolor variety has white-edged leaves while the Alba variety produces white flowers.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): The white fruits are pairs of curved oblongs that look like the waxing or waning moon.
Giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): The Alabaster variety of the giant hyssop bears white flowers and anise-scented leaves. The Mexicana variety has a lemony fragrance.
Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina): The edible leaves of the woolly lamb’s ear are great for moon gardens. Although flowers range from purple to pink, pruning can highlight the soft gray foliage.
FACTOID: A moon garden is a garden that is designed to be enjoyed by the light of the moon. Plants selected for the moon garden include nocturnal plants with silvery leaves, white flowers, and emit their scents at night. Many public gardens provide evening tours of their moon gardens.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): The pale gray leaves and the sweet scent of lavender varieties such as the Nana Alba or the Edelweiss make it one of the favorite nighttime herbs of moon gardeners. Remember that not all lavender types are fragrant!
Silver queen (Artemisia ludoviciana): All members of this genus are famous for their silver foliage, and are favorites among moon garden herbs.
White coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): The coneflower varieties that bear white petals include the White Swan and the Strawberry and Cream.
Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus): The edible leaves have white hairs, perfect for a moon garden, particularly between flagstones or as general ground cover.
Along with attempts to send humans to outer space, scientists and researchers have worked with astronauts, astrophysicists, and space engineers to grow plants in space. And they’ve succeeded to a certain extent.
However, plants cannot be grown on the moon simply because moon soil (regoliths) doesn’t contain the atmosphere, temperature, moisture, and nutrients necessary for earth plants to live.
When we are able to grow plants on the moon, it means that we have solved great challenges in lunar agriculture. At the same time, it also means that humans have an alternative place to go when the earth becomes too toxic.
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