Posted by Lauren Rugani on April 15, 2009
In an important first step toward colonizing the moon, Mars and beyond, scientists plan to launch mini greenhouses into space and grow fresh vegetables on the moon. Because if we’re going to live there in 20 years, we’re gonna have to eat. And how much Tang and freeze-dried ice cream can you really consume?
Paragon Space Development Corp. has built prototypes of these greenhouses that house a single plant in a bell jar surrounded by a 1.5-foot high aluminum frame. The capsules will hitch a ride to the moon sometime after 2012 aboard Odyssey Moon’s space vehicle and entry into the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.
The mini moon gardens will be prepared with earth soil and seeds of the Brassica plant, which in a variety of species can be cultivated for its roots (turnips), leaves (cabbage, brussel sprouts), flowers (cauliflower, broccoli) and seeds (mustard). Most importantly, these plants develop fully from seed to flower in only 14 days, which is the same amout of time as one “moon day.” Because the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere, temperatures on the surface swing wildly from day to night, and the scientists fear that the plants won’t survive overnight at -240°F. But if the plants set new seeds before lunar nightfall, a new generation will thrive the next day.
There are, of course, loads of problems that need to be addressed before lunar farming becomes a reality. The greenhouse glass must shield the plants from the harsh sunlight while simultaneously letting enough light in for photosynthesis; a system is needed to provide the plants with carbon dioxide and remove oxygen (perhaps reroute it to human living quarters?); and the most obvious problem, providing water and nutrients for each new generation of plants.
Practicality aside, it will still be a good lesson for science. Plants have previously been grown in more or less zero-gravity environments on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, but never in partial gravity. Since the force of gravity on the moon is one-sixth what it is on earth, the scientists are eager to observe how the plants develop in such a different environment.