Of a Garden on the Moon, part III

or: The quest for answers continues

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In our quest to answer the question of whether plants can grow in Lunar regolith, the main obstacle to a definitive answer seems to be that we are limited in our research by the availability of actual Moon dirt to work with. This time around we’re going to look through NASA’s Lunar e-Library to see if we can find anything of interest, and also do a little speculating on what some of the possibilities might be for Lunar agriculture (cynthiculture?).



Okay, that didn’t work so well. I’ve always had problems with the Lunar e-Library CD, and it makes my hard drive make odd and unsettling sounds. The index is one of the few things I’ve ever been able to get to work, and a search only revealed a couple of papers that might be of interest. I tried about half a dozen times to retrieve the files, but haven’t been able to do so. These were:

Ito, T., “Nutritional characteristics of moon dust for soil microorganisms”, N86-14078, 09/01/83 (pdf)

and

“Utilization of on-site resources for Regenerative Life Support Systems at a lunar outpost.” Abstract Only.

I didn’t see the Ito paper referenced in the LBA:SfPG in part II. Reading through it, it does seem to be tough to draw any conclusions from it. Well, perhaps the NASA Technical Reports Server has something else. Nope, not much there either. The impression I’m getting is that most of the research in the past couple of decades has been focused more on creating artificial growing environments for use on space stations (which is entirely reasonable given that we actually have space stations to work with). The use of regolith as a growing medium, or as a supplement to a plant’s growing medium, seems to have been largely overlooked, probably because of the difficulty in obtaining use of the real stuff as noted in Part I & Part II. I did do some digging around on the internet and did come across a couple of items of note:

The one I’m really impressed with is NCSU’s “Adventures of the Agronauts”, which is a set of curriculum materials involving plant growth chambers for space. Mission 3: “Stayin’ Alive (Pt. I)” (doc) covers the discussion of soils, and is very nicely done for the target level audience (elementary). I’m not sure if this is in response to NASA’s “Lunar Plant Growth Chamber Challenge”, which has been getting a fair amount of traffic over at the Lunar Library.

At a far more advanced level, ‘In Situ Biological Response: Scalable Assay of Complex Biological Phenomena Using Genetically Engineered Plants’ (pdf) by Paul, Schuerger and Ferl at the Univ. of Florida and presented at the 2005 Space Resources Roundtable offers some interesting insights. For example, I did not know that seeds could travel in vacuum and at extremely low temperatures. Their proposal seems to be for a lander that would scoop up some local soil and plant the seeds in them. The plants would have been genetically engineered to provide a specific response, such as Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), upon the activation of certain gene sequences. In this way the plant could act as a biosensor to measure bioresponse to these new environments. This seems to be a really interesting path of research to follow.

Not directly applicable, but speaking to the limitations of simulants as a research material, is the book of abstracts for the “Lunar Regolith Simulant Materials Workshop” (pdf), which was held back in January 2005.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention a nice NASA Educational Informational Product entitled “Teachers and Students Investigating Plants in Space: A Teacher’s Guide with Activities for Life Sciences” (pdf). While it doesn’t speak to Moon regolith as a growth medium, it is nevertheless a great introduction for students (Gr. 6-12) to learn more about plants in space.

Still another resource is something I got from my online Moon class last fall, a WJU project entitled “Bio-Blast”.

Al Fin joins in the discussion and notes that I didn’t mention aeroponics as a potential means for growing plants on the Moon in his post Planting a Garden On the Moon and CoS 49

There must be some kind of zeitgeist going on here, as the BBC just published an article entitled “Plants ‘thrive’ on Moon rock diet”. (hat-tip to Clark over at the indispensable Hobbyspace) It describes research presented at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna (a very interesting city). Marigolds were planted in anorthosite, a common rock in the highlands of the Moon, and in the presence of microbes the plants thrived. One unnamed senior official of the European Space Agency (ESA) apparently dismissed it as ‘science fiction’. I think the research presented in this three-parter shows that the idea of growing plants on the Moon has some pretty compelling, if sparse, science fact behind it. As has also been shown, we do have to be careful about drawing conclusions when using simulants. I’ll see if I can get a copy of the presentation from Mr. Foing for the Lunar Library.

In the first part, I noted that the Moon pretty much couldn’t support life. That is not entirely true. In Volume 4 of NASA SP-509: “Space Resources”, on page 262 is an extract taken from a paper presented at the 2nd Conference on Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century, ‘Water and Cheese from the Lunar Desert: Abundances and Accessibility of H, C, and N on the Moon’ which notes:

“The Moon has been underrated as a source of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and other elements essential to support life. Each cubic meter of typical lunar soil contains the chemical equivalent of lunch for two – two large cheese sandwiches, two 12-oz. sodas (sweetened with sugar), and two plums, with substantial carbon and nitrogen left over.”

Speculation:

Absent definitive answers, all one can do is speculate based on the limited available facts, as well as present idealized cases.

It’s generally understood that any kind of long-term Lunar presence is going to be underground. Barring the propitious discovery of underground caverns, perhaps from old lava tubes, we’re going to have to carve that space out of rock and seal it. The mental well being of Moonbase residents is going to dictate that people have access to greenspace, so it is only logical that at some point people are going to carve out large enough spaces to support a more natural type of agriculture than the types of CELSS systems noted in part II. More adventurous types will want large spaces in which to fly. So at some point we’re going to be looking at planting large amounts of plants in what will mostly be (at first) sterile Moon dirt.

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An interesting philosophy in relation to the raising of plants as foodstuffs is the French concept of terroir and goรƒยปt de terroir. The concept is, in essence, that the taste and quality of a foodstuff is a function of many factors, primarily the soil in which the plant is grown and the minerals therein. Contributing factors include the angle and time of sunlight, humidity of prevailing winds over the growing cycle, timing of rain, and many other factors. Applying the lessons of CELSS, we can consider how the large underground spaces might be designed. The use of lightpipes mounted on Solar Power Towers to direct raw sunlight underground allows for control of the spectra and timing of sunlight received by the plants. Sprinkler systems mounted on the ceiling can provide periodic rain showers. Venting of waste atmosphere from the base and uptake of cleaned atmosphere from the plants might be controlled (how I have no idea). In many ways, different micro-terroirs could be created to craft particular foodstuffs.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are always in demand at the ISS, as was the case with Mir, and will no doubt be the case at future cislunar orbital facilities between the Earth and Moon. It’s cheaper to launch cargo from the Moon than from Earth, so there is a natural trade flow from the Moon once we do get around to large scale plant production. This also bodes well for future Lunar restaurants, who will be able to provide menu items unique to the Moon for tourists, as well as other plant delights (Moon perfumes? New spices? Lunajuana?).

So what do I think happened with the liverwort way back in part I? I can’t claim to be any kind of expert on this topic, but my speculative guess is that the thoroughly “gardened” Lunar regolith is abundant in a lot of trace elements (the same sorts of things we take vitamins for) that have been farmed out of the soil at industrial farms here on Earth. That abundance of trace minerals helps for gene expression and cell function in both plants and humans. The Moon may actually be a gold mine for agriculture, both there and here.

-Given the abundance of trace minerals, would it be feasible to export quantities of regolith back to Earth to serve as a soil supplement for terrestrial fields?

-Given the apparent harshness of the Martian soil, would it be feasible to export quantities of Lunar regolith to Mars, in conjunction with small amounts of Earth humus, to serve as a soil medium for greenhouses there?

-Will regolith be used in conjunction with microgravity materials sciences in cislunar space to create even more efficient growth media for plants, a la zeolites? (Future marketing: The “Z” in zeolites is for Zero Gravity! Buy now!)

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Another interesting consideration is that research has shown that plants grown in space can manifest physical properties unseen on Earth. In particular, a rose was found to have a significant change in some of the chemical components. Microgravity is a lot different from one-sixth Lunar gravity, but Lunar gravity is a lot different from Earth gravity – it’s wonderful. (I know this to be so very, very true from my Zero-G flight – the Lunar G parabolas seemed to be everyone’s favorite, as Mars was too much like Earth, and micro G was just alien to the body {doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat, as many times as possible})

On a more philosophical level, it’s also exciting to consider the cosmological import of bearing the seeds of Earth out into space. Do we have a right to carry the life of Earth out into the Solar system where there is no life? Or is it an obligation we have as the intelligent caretakers and stewards of the Earth’s ecosystem to grow that ecosystem beyond Earth?

I can easily envision large underground spaces in the Moon where guinea pigs and bunny rabbits frolic in the gardens amongst butterflies and ladybugs and ants and earthworms and flowers. It seems a long ways off from where we are right now, but it can happen, and probably will because someone in this world will do it. This begs the question of what parts of the biosphere we will take with us; not an easy question to answer.

Who know what kinds of exciting discoveries await us in this largely unexplored field of Moon farming? (which I’m going to start calling cynthiculture because it sounds cool) This is pretty much Luna Incognito at this point, which means there are a lot of exciting opportunities for discovery. Who will be our Johnny (or Jane) Appleseed of the Moon?

Librarian’s Note: The inspiration for this article came from a confluence of circumstances. In no particular order:

-I’ve noticed a fair amount of traffic through the NASA Lunar Plant Growth Chamber Challenge entry over in the Lunar Library

-I’ve been working my way through the English-language translation of a book by Pierre Boulle (author of ‘Planet of the Apes’) entitled ‘Garden on the Moon‘ [It turns out to be a Zen garden] for the Lunar SciFi reviews (Wow, over 100,000 page views to date!) over in the Forums

-Doing a review of ‘Lunar Base Agriculture‘ has been on my to-do list for a while

-After serving as a judge at the recent Dallas Regional Science and Engineering Fair, I was wandering around looking at the other displays outside of my judging section (high school physics & astronomy) and in the junior high area (which I judged last year) was a display entitled ‘Operation Moon Dirt: Can the Man and the Moon take up Farming?’ I remembered the news article that was his inspiration for his investigation, and he had an impressive write-up and display. He got 2nd place in his division. Way to go!

-I was going to do a review of available non-Apollo-specific documentaries that are available, but it’s all the same stuff and I got bored and moved on to something more interesting. Still, that video segment of the liverwort response noted in part I of the article was sufficiently different that it has been sticking in my head.

-I was looking up something else in the Oxford Dictionary of Astronomy and stumbled upon ‘Cynthian’ – “referring to the Moon. The term comes from an identification of the Moon goddess with Artemis, twin sister of Apollo, supposedly born on Mount Cynthus on the island of Delos.”

-I got distracted from another article I’m working on about exercise on the Moon because I can’t find the DVD that has the rego-boarding sequence in it.

Thanks everyone for reading! Please feel free to stick around and browse through the stacks over at the Lunar Library.

Coming Soon! Out of the Cradle’s next feature article – “Rollerblading on the Moon”

Part I
Part II

P.S. Readers are invited/encouraged to leave additional related links in the Comments.

4 thoughts on “Of a Garden on the Moon, part III

  1. .

    in my opinion, the lunar agriculture is possible but NEVER will be as cheap as send the food from Earth

    one the Moon, you must replicate the entire Earth’s ecosystem, the CO2 cycle, add the nutritions of the Earth’s land to the lunar regolith, build big infrastructures to protect from vacuum, burn giant amount of energy to protect from the very large temperatur excursion on the lunar surface, send large amount of water (also since the plants, like humans, are largely made of water) etc.

    just evaluate the weight of the things you must be send from Earth and you will realize that send the ready-made food will need 1/100th (or less) of the payload (and costs)

    .

  2. It’s not about cost, its about sustainability. If a small system that supports 3 people is created on the moon, along with the machinery to build another greenhouse (make glass or whatever from the dirt), the system can grow).

    I do agree with sending the mass for the plants. Mars has much more resources in terms of plant biomass. its all about CHONS and wether or not its in the ground.

    An enabling technology is space nuclear power. That is the key to unlock of lot of this.

  3. Are these plans for a commerical business building these greenhouses or is this a government program. If it is a commerical business do they get to OWN the land the greenhouse sits on? I do not think any business in their right mind would build ANY infrastructure on the moon without land ownership.

  4. Pingback: Carnival of Space Week 51 » astroengine.com

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