NASA is sending astronauts back to the Moon by the end of this decade, and hope to send humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s. Growing food in space using in-situ resources is vital if astronauts are to survive on both the Moon and Mars for the long-term. Growing plants in space using Earth soil is nothing new, as this research is currently ongoing onboard the International Space Station (ISS). But recent research carried out on Earth has taken crucial steps in being able to grow food in space using extraterrestrial material that we took from the Moon over 50 years ago.

In a recent study published in Communications Biology, researchers have made a remarkable first step in helping future astronauts on the Moon grow their own food using lunar regolith instead of Earth soil. This is an extraordinary discovery as this could help future astronauts on the Moon and Mars grow their own food using in-situ resources as opposed to relying on resupplies from Earth to help them survive. What makes this research even more amazing is it was accomplished using lunar regolith that was returned from the Moon over 50 years ago by samples from Apollo 11, 12, and 17.

Rob Ferl, left, and Anna-Lisa Paul looking at the plates filled part with lunar soil and part with control soils, now under LED growing lights. At the time, the scientists did not know if the seeds would even germinate in lunar soil. (Credit: UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones)

“This research is critical to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals as we’ll need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This fundamental plant growth research is also a key example of how NASA is working to unlock agricultural innovations that could help us understand how plants might overcome stressful conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth.”

Earth’s soil is rich in vital nutrients ideal for growing plants, to include minerals (45%), water (25%), air (25%), and organic matter (5%). For Lunar regolith, 99% of the mass consists of water (41-45%), Silicon (Si), Aluminum (Al), Calcium (Ca), Iron (Fe), Magnesium (Mg), and Titanium (Ti), and nearly all of the remaining 1% consists of Manganese (Mn), Sodium, (Na), Potassium (K), and Phosphorous (P).

“Here we are, 50 years later, completing experiments that were started back in the Apollo labs,” said Robert Ferl, a professor in the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and a co-author on the study. “We first asked the question of whether plants can grow in regolith. And second, how might that one day help humans have an extended stay on the Moon.”

For the study, the team grew the well-studied Arabidopsis thaliana, which is native to Eurasia and Africa, and is a relative of mustard greens and other cruciferous (cabbage family) vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts. Due to its small size and ease of growth, it is one of the most studied plants in the world. Because of this, scientists already know what its genes look like, how it behaves in different circumstances, and even how it grows in space

Anna-Lisa Paul, left, and Rob Ferl, working with the lunar soils in their lab.
(Credit: UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones)

Using samples from Apollo 11, 12, and 17, the research team used only a gram of regolith for each plant. They then added water and seeds to the samples. They then put the trays into terrarium boxes in a clean room, and a nutrient solution
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