Lunar habitation can’t be left to robots. The key to this is to get humans involved and to give them a say in how we get there.
Will a plant grow faster under one-sixth of Earth’s gravity? Would a succulent survive the extremes of space travel? Or would adding water to a dehydrated husk be the best way to seed the Moon?
It’s not blue-sky science.
Growing plants in space is an absolute necessity if humans are to establish an enduring presence off-planet. It’s already been found that Martian soil might be very conducive.
But given NASA is planning to build a Moon base, testing the capacity of plants to survive and thrive on the lunar surface has become a priority.
“Evolution hasn’t produced plants for space travel,” says Lunaria One science advisor Associate Professor Caitlin Byrt. “But it has evolved mechanisms for extremely challenging environments here on Earth”.
They live under immense pressure in the deepest ocean trenches.
They grow in the thin atmospheres of mountaintops.
They thrive in deserts and permafrost alike.
So why not the extremities of space?
Moon food. Oxygen. Medicine. Mental health.
Byrt says successful crops are crucial for the success of any sustainable space colony.
Economics is another crucial consideration.
Every space-grown tomato, potato and lettuce will reduce the need for food to be carried aboard a rocket. For example, a 1kg punnet of avocados on a Russian Soyuz rocket would cost about $25,000 to boost into orbit. Delivering them to the Moon would multiply this figure.
But what would it take to grow lunar legumes?
“We need to know how the germination of different plants responds to the crazy experiences they go through while in space,” she says. “And that’s before we figure out what it takes to keep them healthy once they get to the Moon.”
First, we must determine what species are most suited to becoming moon food and that in itself has profound implications.
“It may be that only the hardiest plants can survive,” she says. “But those varieties may not be useful for anything. So we may end up having to build new plants from the ground up.”
Lunaria One’s Australian Lunar Experiment Promoting Horticulture (ALEPH) project brings together a multinational team of engineers, biologists and educators from academia, non-profit and commercial organisations.
ALEPH-1 will consist of a small, hermetically sealed chamber. Byrt and Lunaria One are studying whether or not it should carry seeds or “resurrection plants”. Or both.
One household example of a resurrection plant is Rose of Jericho. When it dries up, it doesn’t necessarily die.
“Resurrection plants dehydrate down to a tiny percentage of their water carrying capacity,” Byrt says. “But, within hours of being watered, they bounce back to life”.
Such an ability may position a plant to survive the extremes of space travel. And make it viable.
The experiment itself will last just 72 hours. That’s constrained by the size of the chamber and the ability to keep its internal environment life-friendly.
Lunaria One hopes to compare this data against that collected through a parallel citizen science project. Schools and individual participants will be asked to build Do-It-Yourself plant chambers and conduct a specific monitoring regime.
“Space exploration is for everyone,” says Lunaria One director Lauren Fell. “We don’t want a future where only autonomous and remote-controlled machines inhabit realms beyond Earth, but where humans can live and thrive. The key to this is to get humans involved and to give them a say in how we get there.” (Register your interest)
The ALEPH-1 experiment brings together researchers and engineers from commercial companies, QUT, RMIT, ANU and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Israel’s SpaceIL will carry the Lunaria One arboretum aboard the private Isreali Beresheet2 mission in late 2024 or early 2025.