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Space Science

Growing Plants In Lunar Gravity 111

Posted by Soulskill
from the jolly-green-astronaut dept.
smooth wombat writes "If everything goes according to plan, an experiment designed to test whether plants can grow in the limited lunar gravity will hitch a ride with a competitor for the Google Lunar X Prize. 'The current prototype for the greenhouse is a 15-inch-high (37.5-centimeter-high) reinforced glass cylinder that's about 7 inches (18 centimeters) wide on the bottom. Seeds for a rapid-cycle type of Brassica plant — basically, mustard seeds — would be planted in Earth soil within the container.' The press release from Paragon Space Development Corporation outlines its partnership with Odyssey Moon to be the first to grow a plant on another world. In addition to the experiment, Paragon will be helping Odyssey with the thermal control system and lander design. To win the prize, Odyssey must land its craft on the lunar surface by the end of 2014."
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Growing Plants In Lunar Gravity

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  • by Swordopolis (1159065) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @02:13AM (#27368185)
    It took me like three tries before I stopped reading the headline as "Growing Planets in Lunar Gravity"
  • Wow (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Kleen13 (1006327)
    What they're doing seems mundane until you think of the scale of things that have to happen right for this experiment to be successful. I'll be watching this....
  • Thus any differences between earth grav and 1/6 earth grav are likely to be negligible. Dumbest experiment ever.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by megrims (839585)

      From TFA:

      "Plants have been grown in essentially zero gravity and of course in Earth gravity, but never in fractions of gravity," said Dr. Volker Kern, Paragon's Director of NASA Human Spaceflight Programs who conducted plant growth experiments in space on the US Space Shuttle. "Scientifically it will be very interesting to understand the effects of the Moon and one sixth gravity on plant growth."

      I'd be curious to see what kind of different plant structures emerge.

      • by Maelwryth (982896) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @04:19AM (#27368601)
        Yes, that was my thought to. I was thinking more about larger plants though. Would fruit still grow the same shape under lunar gravity? Would you have to ration water to the plants so they don't suck up to much water and collapse? Would they have similar problems with nutrient loss as we do with calcium? Could be a very interesting experiment indeed.

        It does appear there have been some preliminary studies done. Including growing Arabidopsis thaliana [wikipedia.org] on the ISS. And rice [nih.gov] on the Space Shuttle STS-95 mission. The abstract does mention some elongation in the coleoptile of the rice. I would imagine the bigger the plant, the bigger the changes that would develop. It is, after all, studying the effect of gravity.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by AJWM (19027)

        The thing is, it wouldn't be hard to do the experiment at almost any gee level they wanted, using a centrifuge on the space station (well, two counter-rotating centrifuges to minimize angular momentum effects on the station). Of course for greater than one gee we can do the same thing on Earth.

    • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @02:58AM (#27368359) Homepage Journal

      Thus any differences between earth grav and 1/6 earth grav are likely to be negligible. Dumbest experiment ever.

      Famous last words...

    • by MrCoke (445461)

      Prove it.

    • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @04:10AM (#27368579)

      If you are taking off with a sack of seeds to colonize the moon, and planning to live off the land, like early pioneers, you might want to be certain that your plants will grow there.

      The European South African settlers who ventured too far north were screwed when they discovered that their plants would not grow in the tropics.

      (I hear the voices of thousands of Slashdotters screaming, "Are you suggesting that the moon has a tropical climate?")

      And the choice of mustard seeds is not a bad one, from a survivalist view: I remember many a nights during my cashless college days, when dinner was a "Mustard Sandwich" . . . mustard on bread. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Hunger never saw bad bread."

      But before I sign up for the Moon Colony Mission, I would like to know the effects of Lunar Gravity on my preferred diet: Philly Cheesesteaks, beer, canned Chilli, chips, Taco Cabana take-out, another cheesesteak, more beer . . .

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Yvanhoe (564877)
      I beg to differ [www.jaxa.jp]. Differences do exist, and we have no idea what differences there will be under Moon's gravity. Will it be enough for the plants to recognize the vertical orientation ? Will they grow 6 times higher ? Same height ? Will the stem be thiner ? thicker ?

      We can make educated guesses, but we are almost guaranteed to have surprises.
      • absolutely!
        and until we are out there - all our theories and extrapolations are only "educated guesses" as you said.
        who really knows how wrong we could be. that is what really fascinates me.
  • Paragon Firsts (Score:5, Interesting)

    by quercus.aeternam (1174283) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @02:48AM (#27368313) Homepage
    I'm somewhat surprised that I hadn't heard of Paragon - they seem to have done some very interesting experiments [paragonsdc.com].

    I was interested in seeing if it was like a biosphere, or how much regulation would be required. Unfortunately (according to TFA), they haven't actually designed anything yet.

    It will also be interesting to see how the plants handle having a lunar day to complete their life cycle. It would be very cool if the plants were able to perpetuate for a while - even if only for a few days/cycles.

    I for one will be quite interested in how this develops...

    • by uofitorn (804157)
      I'm interested too corporate spammer. A "TFA" reference makes you legit it does not. My apologizes for the lame Yoda reference.
  • Couldn't this same experiment be done on a centrifuge in Earth's gravity? Centrifuges usually are used to increase apparent gravity, but if it were shaped so that the plant and soil faced outward, at the right speed, wouldn't one be able to mimic that 1/6 g?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Joebert (946227)
      There's a way you can find out.

      Normally if you held your head over a desk and jumped into the air gravity would would make you crack your head on the desk when you came down. Now, if instead of jumping up you just thrust your head straight down to the desk your head would be in zero gravity and gravity wouldn't cause you to crack your head on the desk.

      I for one am interested to see how this plays out, be sure to let us know if you try it. :)
      • Normally if you held your head over a desk and jumped into the air gravity would would make you crack your head on the desk when you came down. Now, if instead of jumping up you just thrust your head straight down to the desk your head would be in zero gravity and gravity wouldn't cause you to crack your head on the desk.

        I for one am interested to see how this plays out, be sure to let us know if you try it. :)

        You owe me a new keyboard. This one is now full of blood. Also, after I visit the emergency department and the dentist (I lost 5 teeth doing your 'experiment') I might send you the bill. Your experiments should come with a safety warning. :/

        • by Joebert (946227)
          Well in that case, keeping with the theme of the experiment, I guess now is a good time to say try this at your own risk.
    • Re:What about... (Score:5, Informative)

      by MichaelSmith (789609) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @03:15AM (#27368415) Homepage Journal

      Couldn't this same experiment be done on a centrifuge in Earth's gravity? Centrifuges usually are used to increase apparent gravity, but if it were shaped so that the plant and soil faced outward, at the right speed, wouldn't one be able to mimic that 1/6 g?

      No. A centrifuge can only add to gravity.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by paxswill (934322)
        I don't thing you understand what he meant. He's suggesting orienting the plant opposite the normal configuration, with the soil and roots system being closer to the central axis, with the leafy portions of the plant growing out, away from the central axis. The problem with this is that you can't really completely eliminate the effects of gravity. If the centrifuge is spinning horizontally, you still have gravity pulling the plants sideways, and if you set it up vertically, you may be able to get and averag
        • by G-forze (1169271)

          Wouldn't the average still be exactly 1 G? Well, maybe not if one were to spinn the centrifuge at different speeds in different parts of the circulation but it still seems stupid.

        • No, he understood. You just don't understand physics. A centrifuge can only add to apparent gravity. Turning it upside down doesn't fix anything, you're still increasing the total force vector on the plants. Unless somehow you can spin it so the force vector (Which always points out from the centre of the centrifuge) is always pointing against earths gravity. You'll need a mighty big centrifuge methinks.
          • by AJWM (19027)

            Unless somehow you can spin it so the force vector (Which always points out from the centre of the centrifuge) is always pointing against earths gravity. You'll need a mighty big centrifuge methinks.

            Well, you don't have to build the whole centrifuge, just part of it. We call it the International Space Station, whose centrifugal force (I know, I know) balances Earth's gravity perfectly. Ditto for everything else in Earth orbit.

      • by Maelwryth (982896)
        "No. A centrifuge can only add to gravity."
        Although commonly measured in g's. You should probably point out that it doesn't increase gravity. Pedantic, I know.
        • "No. A centrifuge can only add to gravity." Although commonly measured in g's. You should probably point out that it doesn't increase gravity. Pedantic, I know.

          Saying add to gravity is not the same as saying add gravity.

          • by Maelwryth (982896)
            "Saying add to gravity is not the same as saying add gravity."
            This is true. My apologies. I was going to debunk myself soon after posting but thought I would leave it as is and see if I could get away with it...........bugger.
      • Re:What about... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by ortholattice (175065) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @04:56AM (#27368689)
        With a centrifuge, the experiment could be done on the Space Station, rotating at the right speed to emulate the moon's gravity. Still expensive, but not as much as a lunar surface version.

        On the other hand, it might be useful to run a centrifuge on earth and emulate say 1g + n*0.1g for n = 0 to 10. We could look at the resulting curve and extrapolate backwards. That of course assumes the extrapolation is meaningful, but it might give a rough indication of what to expect with very little expenditure.

        • Re:What about... (Score:4, Informative)

          by dkf (304284) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> on Saturday March 28, 2009 @05:57AM (#27368883) Homepage

          That of course assumes the extrapolation is meaningful, but it might give a rough indication of what to expect with very little expenditure.

          That's been done I bet, but you still need to run the experiment to check whether that extrapolation really is meaningful. There isn't really any substitute, because the fundamental problem with all models (and theories and extrapolations) is that they leave out details, and if you push the model far out of where it was designed for you can get other effects dominating.

          For example, you can extrapolate gravitation down to the nanometer scale, but that doesn't mean that it lets you fully understand the behavior of matter in that domain. Electrostatic effects tend to rule at that level instead, yet they're not part of any (sane) model of gravitation that I've heard of. Overall, this just tells you to beware of taking models too far.

        • by sketerpot (454020)
          The X-Prize people are all trying to make lunar missions a lot cheaper than anything we're doing on the space station. And since they're going to the moon anyway, why not bring a plant along?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by risk one (1013529)
        But what about if you spin it backwards?
      • by giorgist (1208992)
        OK Then, how about we dig a hole and grow them in there. There is zero gravity in the center of the earth. You want a 6th ... well, how about we fill that hole 6th the way up.

        YES NO ?
        • Yes but to get 1/6 g your hole would have to reach down to the mantle of the earth. So its going to be pretty warm. Another way would be to suspend a black hole above your experiment. It wouldn't even need to be a big black hole as these things go.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      You can simulate increased gravity with a centrifuge but you can't make gravity that is already there disappear.
    • That's a good idea but I think gravity will spoil it with something called an avalanche. I was thinking of a platform going up and down, it would have min g at 1/6 and max g at 11/6, not ideal but would show if variations in gravity had an effect.
  • Rapid growth (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Joebert (946227) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @02:55AM (#27368345) Homepage
    Has anyone else ever wondered if it would be possible to grow something almost instantaniously if the conditions were absolutely perfect ?

    I would think that plants would grow faster with little to no gravity.
    • Re:Rapid growth (Score:5, Informative)

      by Psychotria (953670) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @03:05AM (#27368385)

      I would think that plants would grow faster with little to no gravity.

      Maybe. But the question might be more related to how healthy or productive the plants are. Even on Earth we can accelerate plant growth by (as an example) growing light adapted plants in low-light conditions with ample nutrients, or by introducing growth hormones such as gibberellins or adjusting the photoperiod. Often the plants are not 'healthy' though. Stem elongation, weak cell walls, abnormal tugor, reduced or inhibited fecundity all may exhibit themselves. So, to me, the question isn't whether it's possible (it probably is), but whether or not the result is a healthy plant that is able to reproduce and/or meet some other goal like production yields (in the case of vegetative growth then I guess that could easily be met, in the case of grain [seed] production I think it might be harder...)

      • by Joebert (946227)
        What if we can get rid of leaves and somehow get the roots to product fruit ?
        Without the leaves the fruit could be sucked into a vaccuum or sorts because there would be no need for the Co2 for the leaves.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Potatoes, perhaps?

          The leaves are just solar panels, after all.

    • There is a microscopic plant that given perfect possible conditions could go from 1plant to something the volume of the planet earth in half a year. Bet we could grow bacteria even faster. I swear some cultures in bio were just moving not growing...
    • Why? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @03:35AM (#27368475) Journal

      The splitting of the cells, the growing of said cells, keeping the cells supplied with nutrients, that is what limits the growth of a plant. Not silly gravity. Gravity has an effect (perhaps) on the shape of the plant. I could imagine that with less gravity a tree would be more upright, its branches not bending down by their own weight. There might be a reduction in the cost to pump the sap around although you got to wonder if gravity is not actually used in this process.

      But hey, smarter people then me and you have tried thinking about this, didn't come up with a clear answer so they decided to do an experiment. Soon we will know or have another hole in the moon.

      • Re:Why? (Score:5, Funny)

        by Joebert (946227) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @03:51AM (#27368515) Homepage

        But hey, smarter people then me

        Speak for yourself, I just don't have access to a lab and all of those cool gadgets. :)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Takichi (1053302)
        The direction of gravity and the direction of light both have an effect on plants ability to grow "up". They're labelled gravitropism and phototropism respectively. With gravity, they believe that starchy balls sink with gravity, put pressure on the cell membrane, and start a chemical chain of messages. So gravity does have an effect on the direction of growth, although it might not be as noticeable if there is a strong phototropic effect. As for cell growth, I'm not sure about the effects. At least, tha
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Takichi (1053302)
          Actually, I should add that the gravitropic effect is relevant to the root system of the plant. It helps the plant push down into soil, finding more nutrients, so low gravity definitely could affect plant growth if it is has a poorer ability to find and absorb resources.
      • Re:Why? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by WindBourne (631190) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @04:47PM (#27372785) Journal
        How are you certain of that? Some plants grow upside down just fine, while others fail. More likely than not, when this was first tried, I would bet that most ppl thought that ALL plants would fail, or succeed, not just some of them. Simply put, we do not know UNTIL it is tried. I am guessing that some plants will do just fine, and others will fail miserably.
  • Growing is easy (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The hard part is keeping them from frying in direct sunlight.

  • How come Intel had to pay for their [banner] ad and Paragon didn't?
  • by DeltaQH (717204) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @04:00AM (#27368543)
    Rather than answering the question about if a plant can grow in lunar gravity, I think it would be far more interesting to know if a plant can grow on lunar soil and with lunar sunshine.

    Not directly of course! But what kind of soil treatment, additives and sunshine/radiation filtering would have to be done to be able to grow plants on a moon based greenhouse.

    The question is. How much of what the moon offers can we use to grow plants there, and what adaptations must be done both to lunar based greenhouse and plants to use as much of moon resources as possible?

    Sunshine during the day doesnt seem to be a problem in the moon ;-)

    But those cold long nights :-(

    What about a near polar location with eternal sunlight? For example along the rim of the crater Peary
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      That filter already exists. Solar cells work fine on the moon. That means you can use it to recharge batteries, and use those batteries to power lamps suitable for growing plants. It's a clumsy way, but doable.

      • by DeltaQH (717204)
        Not bad solution, bat I would prefer a more directly use of the sunshine on the moon... with appropriate filtration.

        Maybe instead of using solar cells to power a lightning system a better idea would be to use light collectors and then conduct the light through optical fibers to the greenhouse where plants grow.
    • by spaceman375 (780812) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @12:31PM (#27370617)

      The biggest problem with the soil is that it's sharp. There's no weathering on the moon; the "soil" is dust and grit with very sharp points and edges. The plants would be enduring constant irritation and injury.

      Of course, you could sift the dust through a concentrated beam of sunlight and melt it into little spheroids. That would still be cheaper than grinding or importing something softer. The point is, you'd have to process your lunar resource of choice somehow; you can't use it "straight up."

      • by rts008 (812749) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @04:24PM (#27372611) Journal

        There's no weathering on the moon; the "soil" is dust and grit with very sharp points and edges.[...]
        The point is, you'd have to process your lunar resource of choice somehow; you can't use it "straight up."

        I was wondering about that myself.
        I also would think the fine dust that is present in large amounts would cause something similar to 'root rot' due to lack of air space between the soil granules/particles.
        Once that fine dust becomes wet, it will pack tightly. I think this could pose a significant problem under low gravity conditions.

        We may have to also rethink some of our 'dirt working' techniques. Most of our soil processing and our 'earth-moving' equipment/machinery utilizes both gravity and kinetic effects. Low gravity will have an effect here.
        Having lived on a farm, and operated front-end loaders and dozers, I do have a little practical experience with both growing plants and 'dirt work'.

        But, botany and geology are not my fields, so I may be just chasing my tail here.

  • Can we not dumb it down too much please - the plant being grown is clearly Arabidopsis thaliana - it is the single most studied species of plant, being that it is used as a model for all plants - like Drosophila (fruit fly) and mice.
  • by macraig (621737) <mark...a...craig@@@gmail...com> on Saturday March 28, 2009 @04:45AM (#27368667)

    ... and then release the spores!

  • Plants grow very well in the Moon, just gotta have your whole Line Family pitch in with drilling the planting corridors and whatnot. Oh, and bartering for ice can be pretty difficult.
    • I've found throwing rocks and such, properly encased in nice metal cans, can help with convincing others of the need to ship water to the moon.
            But then what would I know?:)

      Mycroft
  • Time to make some real lunar haze :o
  • by G3ckoG33k (647276) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @09:14AM (#27369615)

    In August 1997, I sealed a 20L glass carboy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carboy) with desinfected soil and watertrumpet plants (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptocoryne). The water is only 40 mm deep just covering to root system. It just thrives!

    There are seasonal deaths of individual leaves and various succesions of fungus growths, in white, yellow and brown. The "ecosystem" has not crashed yet on me.

    However, I have not yet tested low gravity. That would be an effort beyond my budget...

    .

  • by WindBourne (631190) on Saturday March 28, 2009 @09:50AM (#27369763) Journal
    It was suppose to have a centrifuge module added (CAM). It was designed SPECIFICALLY for growing life in varying Gs. From that we would know exactly how certain life will respond to the moon, mars, or even something in between so that we can design a ship for long term travel. It appears that NASA may have the shuttle thrust upon them for another year or two. If so, I would like to see us restore the CAM and put it up there. While the original module will not work (been exposed to the elements in japan), we have multiple modules that would work. Heck, we could put up a Sundancer or a BA-330 along with the centrifuge. Then move a number of the units from Columbus to the Bigelow and then put the centrifuge in Columbus. This is probably one of the single largest reasons to have the ISS. This kind of work can not be done on the moon. Of course, I would suspect power would be a problem. Russia no longer has their solar cells, and we are adding more power hogs with out increasing the cells.
  • I'd like to see a variation on this experiment that doesn't plant in Earth dirt shipped to the Moon, but rather plants in Moon dust taken from the Moon, and compares to that grown in Earth dirt there. Further research might show that mulching with Moon dust could multiple the dirt stocks without shipping so much between gravity wells. If we could ship just seeds (and probably some water), Moon farming could be a lot more cost effective.

    • by DragonTHC (208439)

      I was just about to post this. I agree that we should be testing whether plants will grow in moon dirt.

      I think though the lack of organics in moon dirt will ultimately be the fail.

    • by sketerpot (454020)
      The longer-term goal of many (most?) Lunar X-Prize teams is to make money by selling cheap moon missions. What you want may happen in a few years, but they're looking for something simpler on the first mission. Plus, this establishes a baseline for later experiments.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by AJWM (19027)

      Back in Apollo days they did this. Actually as I recall they didn't try growing them in pure Lunar soil (that would require too much of a scarce commodity) but in a mix of Lunar soil and sterile Earth soil. The initial objective was to make sure that Lunar soil (and any possible unknown organisms in it) wouldn't have any adverse effect on Earth plants -- but they discovered that the plants actually grew better. Turns out Lunar soil is rich in (inorganic) nutrients just as volcanic soils are.

      The Moon is l

  • Semi-relatedly, since they tried 1 G, 0 G and now they want to try 1/6 G, has anyone ever tried -1 G? i.e. grow plants upside down? I for one would love to see a huge structure meant to hold thousands of cubic meters of soil 100 feet from the ground and let a tree grow downwards. Who knows, maybe you'd get trees of epic dimensions?
    • by sketerpot (454020)
      Upside-down tomato growing is common, and it works for a variety of other plants as well. Link. [gardeningknowhow.com]
      • by 4D6963 (933028)
        Yeah, I found this after a bit of googling, looks like it's the only way it's done. Too bad, imagine a sky scraper with in its center a sequoia tree hanging upside down...
  • Cannibas in Zero G = The New High.
  • What happens in zero-gravity (if that is already known) ? That must be confusing, even for a plant/seed, when there is no "up" or "down".
  • I read with great concern that some of the plants selected are brassicas and, as we know, these are of the cabbage family. Further, the effect upon the human bowel is quite well know especially if you are sitting next to the brassica eater. Does anyone think that it would be a "good thing" to grow brassicas in space and in confined space living room. Mutated Cabbage vs Mothra?

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