Thursday, July 29, 2010

Farms: On the Moon? Quite Likely

"Space Farms Could Mine Minerals From Moon Dirt" (July 29, 2010)

"Future manned missions to the moon or Mars could use plants as bio-harvesters to extract valuable elements from the alien soils, researchers say.

"Now they hope to launch new experiments to follow up on tests done with plants and lunar regolith during NASA's Apollo program that landed men on the moon.

"Lunar regolith is a loose mixture of dust, soil, broken rock and other related materials that lie on top of solid bedrock. The Apollo-era research showed that returned lunar samples of the regolith did not have toxins or contain alien life-form contaminants that could threaten plants, animals or humans on Earth...."

Apollo-era research suggested that plants would grow fine in moon soil, and that it was safe for food crops. But there just wasn't enough to do thorough field testing (literally and figuratively) with what we found on Earth's satellite.

One of many things we don't know is what happens to bacteria that plants need to grow, when the microorganisms get together with lunar soil. That may change soon:

"...New experiments don't need to wait for a return trip to the Moon, according to the researchers. They already have plans that would require just a few grams of the hundreds of kilograms of lunar regolith collected by NASA.

"Just one gram of lunar regolith could support the growth of several Arabidopsis plants related to cabbage and radish, Paul pointed out. That model organism represented the first plant to have its genome sequenced, and so would provide a great baseline for lunar biology experiments...."

My guess is that critters from Earth will get along pretty well in the sort of material we find on the Moon: the place isn't that different. Assuming that we can grow crops on the Moon, I think the article's idea of growing crops to supply interplanetary expeditions isn't very far-fetched.

We probably won't be seeing "Moon farmers" soon, though: on-site crop maintenance and harvesting could, in principle, be handled by robots.

As I've written before, this is an exciting time to live in.

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