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Space NASA

NASA's Next Frontier: Growing Plants On the Moon 193

Posted by samzenpus
from the to-boldly-grow dept.
An anonymous reader writes in with news about a NASA project that aims to grow plants on the moon in specially made containers. "In 2015, NASA will attempt to make history by growing plants on the Moon. If they are successful, it will be the first time humans have ever brought life to another planetary body. The Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team, a group of NASA scientists, contractors, students and volunteers, is finally bringing to life an idea that has been discussed and debated for decades. They will try to grow arabidopsis, basil, sunflowers, and turnips in coffee-can-sized aluminum cylinders that will serve as plant habitats. But these are no ordinary containers – they’re packed to the brim with cameras, sensors, and electronics that will allow the team to receive image broadcasts of the plants as they grow. These habitats will have to be able to successfully regulate their own temperature, water intake, and power supply in order to brave the harsh lunar climate."
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NASA's Next Frontier: Growing Plants On the Moon

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  • by Schrockwell (867776) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @03:04AM (#45479449)
    ...watching grass grow.
    • Those majestic plants 'braving the harsh lunar climate'.

      You just might end up with something like this [youtube.com].

    • by flyingfsck (986395) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @04:43AM (#45479765)
      They should plant weed and dandelions. It will grow anywhere. Pretty soon the whole moon will be green.
      • by Joce640k (829181)

        They should plant weed and dandelions. It will grow anywhere.

        Sure, but what would that prove about the ability to grow normal plants on the moon?

        I think they should plant triffids. Relieve the boredom of future dwellers who'll be living in tiny glass bubbles.

      • by zifn4b (1040588)
        I honestly would not be surprised if Canadian Thistles would grow there. Those are the heartiest weeds I've ever dealt with. You spray weed killer on them for years and they still come back.
      • by sjames (1099)

        Don't forget Kudzu.

    • by d3m0nCr4t (869332) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @05:01AM (#45479801)
      Reminds me of the R.E.M. song: If you believe, they put a plant on the moon, plant on the moon...
  • Awesome (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @03:16AM (#45479489)

    Ok this is awesome.

    Its been on my wishlist for unmanned travel that we'd try packaging up Earth plants and sending them to grow on alien worlds in some way. The Moon is a good starting point - Elon Musk got into SpaceX because he wanted to do it on Mars with a Greenhouse.

    Personally I wish we'd just man up and shoot the appropriate organisms into Venus' atmosphere to start the terraforming process.

    • Re:Awesome (Score:5, Funny)

      by Thanshin (1188877) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @03:47AM (#45479569)

      Personally I wish we'd just man up and shoot the appropriate organisms into Venus' atmosphere to start the terraforming process.

      I agree.

      And as appropriate organisms, my vote goes for: Lawyers, politicians and lobbyists, in that order.

    • Awesome is an understatement. Until we actually can be self contained on another hunk of rock. The human race is in jeopardy of extinction.
    • by Sockatume (732728)

      How do you terraform a planet which has lost most of its hydrogen to space? The water's got to come from somewhere.

      • You collect large amounts of H20 or frozen H2 somewhere in the solar system. Since it's frozen, you only need to give it a bump once to set it on a collision course with the planet, where it will rain down in gigantic torrents.

        Admittedly, I've just made this up and have no clue. Would this work in principle?

        • by Sockatume (732728)

          I think the trick would be keeping it raining down faster than the existing processes would drive it off into space, although that's probably a given if you want to finish the process in a nongeological timescale anyway.

        • You collect large amounts of H20 or frozen H2 somewhere in the solar system. Since it's frozen, you only need to give it a bump once to set it on a collision course with the planet, where it will rain down in gigantic torrents.

          Well, not all sources are frozen. All of our problems would be solved if we could just bump the Sun into Venus. Brilliant!

      • That is not the main problem. From wikipedia: Most planets also rotate on their axis in an anti-clockwise direction, but Venus rotates clockwise (called "retrograde" rotation) once every 243 Earth daysâ"the slowest rotation period of any planet. A Venusian sidereal day thus lasts longer than a Venusian year.
        Just like our moon, the Venus "day" is very very long and like that is the Venus night. I doubt a planet like this, even with a breathable atmosphere is habitable for humans. (Weather ... storms,

        • by Dthief (1700318)
          house on wheels.....slowly moving, and always sunset
          • by 3vi1 (544505)

            It would have to travel 4 miles an hour over every possible type of terrain. Better to just live in orbit.

            • Re:Awesome (Score:4, Informative)

              by foobar bazbot (3352433) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @10:24AM (#45481439)

              It would have to travel 4 miles an hour over every possible type of terrain. Better to just live in orbit.

              Or just skip the terraforming and live in huge floating bubble-cities. An Earth-standard atmosphere turns out to be a lifting gas in Venus's atmosphere, and there's a region of Venus's atmosphere where both pressure and temperature are confortably Earth-like, and it's got nice steady winds to carry your bubble around the planet much faster than the surface rotation -- depends on latitude, but on the order of 100 hours.

              "All" you need is to engineer a nearly-closed biosphere (same as needed for long-term orbiting habitats), and the ability to synthesize the needed inputs from Venusian atmosphere. (In contrast to space habitats, where there's no resources with zero transport costs, but low-energy transfers permit resources from a wide range of places with nearly-uniform transport costs, floating colonies give you access to the upper atmosphere for free, decreasing altitude with increasing cost, the surface with insane difficulty and cost, and orbital (or higher) space at costs similar to those for accessing LEO from Earth's surface.)

      • How do you terraform a planet which has lost most of its hydrogen to space? The water's got to come from somewhere.

        Just leave it to Toyota. They'll think of something, really hard.

    • Re:Awesome (Score:5, Informative)

      by TapeCutter (624760) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @05:33AM (#45479901) Journal
      We don't have any such organisms, Venus suffered a major runaway greenhouse, it has virtually no hydrogen, it's oceans boiled and radiation blew the hydrogen into space over time. It's now deader than Mars, and we don't have the technology to resurrect it.
    • by dargaud (518470)

      Personally I wish we'd just man up and shoot the appropriate organisms into Venus' atmosphere to start the terraforming process.

      I wonder how easy it would be to create a super-thin reflective film [wikipedia.org] at L1 on Venus to drop the sun's contribution below a certain threshold and let some of the atmosphere condense to the ground (hopefully the sulfuric acid part) and drop in pressure in the process. If you can send a few tons of base material and a manufacturing satellite... Of course the Venusians might object to that global cooling.

      • I don't want to start a huge global warming debate, but the problem is you're talking huge expense and several hundred human generations before the desired effect would take place, and probably several hundred more generations before the planet could sustain any kind of life. We can't even get *one* generation of humans to agree to anything about climate on Earth without it degrading into a massive conspiracy name calling argument. Even if it means saving money in just twenty years by switching to renewable
        • by khallow (566160)

          but the problem is you're talking huge expense and several hundred human generations before the desired effect would take place, and probably several hundred more generations before the planet could sustain any kind of life.

          Several hundred human generations is only a few thousand years. It's not a particularly long time. Plus, you're exaggerating the first problem. Even worse case calculations indicate that the Venus atmosphere would freeze out in a few centuries.

          Reading comments on any CBC news story even remotely related to climate change has made me lose all hope for humanity. We're doomed whether we do something or not. Even if we did manage to reverse, or mitigate, climate change there's just too much stupid to believe we'd continue on as a species for much longer. I give it maybe two more generations before we forget how to breath and people start dying of asphyxiation syndrome.

          I see you're doing your part to contribute by hyperventilating about "climate change". Let us not forget the third strategy for "climate change", adaptation.

          • Several implies more than three, so yes a minimum of 3,000 would fit in there, but I was implying it would take an arbitrarily long time. I don't exactly have the time or resources to work out to the second how much time it would take to terraform a planet. Kudos for making something out of nothing and still proving my point.

            I see you're doing your part to contribute by hyperventilating...

            This is exactly the reason we can't have nice things. I say, "hay, you know if we switched to solar or wind power we could save money in the long run and as a bonus it would be good for

            • by khallow (566160)

              Several implies more than three, so yes a minimum of 3,000 would fit in there, but I was implying it would take an arbitrarily long time.

              Which isn't that long as I noted. A few centuries to millennia and the end result could be a second Earth which sticks around being useful for a few tens of millions of years.

              I say, "hay, you know if we switched to solar or wind power we could save money in the long run and as a bonus it would be good for the environment" and I'm accused of hyperventilating.

              Because your claim was exaggerated and you followed it with the hyperbole that people would forget how to breathe merely because they don't buy into a belief system that isn't founded on reality.

              You mean like switching to sustainable energy sources?

              Something we can do even easier in a few decades than we can do now.

              or perhaps cutting down on air pollution that's causing smog in large cities leading to increases in lung diseases like cancer and asthma?

              Already been done. Pollution was much worse in the 50s.

              or perhaps reducing the number of accidents while extracting and transporting dangerous toxic liquid (oil) that's lead to huge issues in fishing and agricultural industries?

              Yes, already done.

              How are things going down there in the Gulf of Mexico by the way?

              T

        • by dargaud (518470)
          Well, it completely depends on how brutal you want to be in the case of Venus (Earth is a whole other problem as you point out). A monomolecular film at the right angle could reflect a good portion of the sun. If you make it large enough to covert a sizable portion of the planet, take away 20% of the sunlight, it wouldn't take long. Such films do exist and aren't even hard to manufacture, but how stable would it be, gravitationally, resistance to UV, radiation, cosmic dust, static electricity trying to fold
      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Of course the Venusians might object to that global cooling.

        Screw 'em, those damned nasty Venusians [mcgrewbooks.com] want to kill us all anyway.

    • by WhiteDragon (4556)

      Personally I wish we'd just man up and shoot the appropriate organisms into Venus' atmosphere to start the terraforming process.

      Because breathable Earth-normal atmosphere is a lifting gas on Venus, we could make a relatively low budget colony without any terraforming. Just send a big balloon. It could ride the relatively stable upper atmospheric winds on Venus, circling the planet every 4 earth days, and be at standard pressure, so any hull breach would not result in explosive decompression.

    • Agreed, but we need to make sure there's no such thing as Venusian life first.

  • I knew it. (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 21, 2013 @03:22AM (#45479501)

    ...it will be the first time humans have ever brought life to another planetary body.

    So NASA is finally admitting that it never sent life [Astronauts] to another planetary body. Am guessing they may have sent dead ones in order to be able truthfully say yes we sent astronauts to the moon.

    • by Cenan (1892902)

      Yes, that is exactly it. If we ignore the technicality that no life ever touched another planetary body on purpose, you'd be spot on. Spacesuits and shit be damned, let's mangle reality to fit our agenda. Go, go gadget tinfoil hat - DEPLOY!

    • You know what this means? Buzz Aldrin's secretly a zombie! (Lest one wonder why he punched that moon landing denier instead of feasting on his brains, the denier's brain was just too small to bother with.)

  • Non SI units (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mikewilsonuk (1676196) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @03:23AM (#45479509)

    The "coffee can" is a US unit unknown to the rest of the world. We buy our coffee in packets or jars (of differing sizes). How big is a coffee can?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 21, 2013 @03:45AM (#45479561)
      American baristas' cans average around 34DD [huffingtonpost.com].
    • by Thanshin (1188877)

      169.56 cubic inches.

    • Re:Non SI units (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 21, 2013 @04:22AM (#45479699)

      I just looked this up - to me "coffee can" meant a 180ml can of liquid coffee (around half the size of a can of coke) that's ready to drink, but apparently this isn't popular outside East Asia. According to Wikipedia, a standard coffee can, also known as a #10 can, has a volume of 13 cups and holds 3 lb of coffee. A cup is a US unit, distinct from the imperial unit of the same name, measuring 16 US tablespoons (again different from imperial tablespoons) or around 237 ml. So a coffee can is not quite 3.1 litres - slightly more than Thanshin's reply of 169.56 cubic inches (which is around 2.8 litres) but slightly less than ksemlerK's reply which comes out as 3.45 litres (unless that's the exterior dimensions?). It also seems kind of weird that the can is so big as it's also called a 3 lb coffee can, which is less than 1.5 kg and coffee is denser than water; perhaps when you open the can it's more than half empty?

    • To my knowledge drinkable coffee is actually forbidden in the united states. Something to do with temperature and the danger of spilling it.
    • Approximately 15cm diameter and 18cm tall can that holds about 1kg of coffee. How are they going to get a sunflower to grow in a coffee can sized space?

  • How much will it cost me if I want to buy one of those turnip?

  • Purpose? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sinktank (871915) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @04:40AM (#45479753)
    From TFA:

    This experiment will test whether plants can survive radiation, flourish in partial gravity, and thrive in a small, controlled environment.

    We can (and have) test all those things here on Earth. IIRC, NASA successfully grew lettuce in zero-g on a shuttle mission.
    The moon is a terrible place to grow plants:

    - 13-day/night cycle
    - 275 Kelvin temperature variation
    - 25 rem/yr radiation with no solar flare protection
    - no water
    - lunar regolith useless as soil

    In other words you have to take the whole environment with you. Growing plants on a scale sufficient to be considered food on the moon is a long way off.

    It makes for a good kids public outreach program, but let's be realistic: the moon is basically good for 2 things - a huge radio telescope on the far side, and the 1-50 ppb He-3 in the lunar regolith. By the time we're ready to do those things, robots will be good enough to do it all for us.
    • by AC-x (735297)

      We can (and have) test all those things here on Earth. IIRC, NASA successfully grew lettuce in zero-g on a shuttle mission.
      The moon is a terrible place to grow plants:

      Exactly; we have done all the tests we can on Earth, and of course nothing beats the real thing for accuracy.

      Plus the only place in the solar system that isn't a terrible place to grow plants is Earth, and possibly the upper atmosphere of Venus [wikipedia.org].

    • - 13-day/night cycle
      - 275 Kelvin temperature variation

      There are areas near the poles that have basically unending sunshine, neatly taking care of those 2 issues.

      no water

      Those same areas have been show to contain a surprising amount of water in the regolith, in the range of cups per cubic meter.

      lunar regolith useless as soil

      Soil is overrated anyway. Hydroponics (or even aeroponics) allows better production with more efficient use of resources. Of course, eventually it'd be nice to work out exactly what it will take to break down the regolith into something earth plant life can survive in; but in

    • no water

      Not exactly. Aside from the huge amount of water ice that can be found in the always-dark craters near the poles, there's also the regolith itself. NASA plans to mine the regolith for water [space.com].

      Half the reason why a lunar space elevator makes sense is because of the tremendous value of having a source of water (and consequently hydrogen and oxygen for fuel/oxidizer) in a shallow gravity well.

    • by hoggoth (414195)

      > robots will be good enough to do it all for us.

      or clones of Sam Rockwell.

  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @05:55AM (#45479985)
    Now that pot is becoming legal in the US, maybe the final frontier will be growing pot on the moon.

    Think about it. What's needed is a really high (pun intended) profit margin product to drive space exploration. Think how much stoners would pay for pot grown on the moon. Astronomical profit!

    Unlike mineral extraction, there is minimal extra-terrestrial processing involved. It's like a sample and return mission, except you don't have to find anything.

    Now we can finally fill in item number two:

    1) Grow pot on Moon

    2) Return it to Earth.

    3) Profit!

  • This might sound a bit stupid, but in my opinion it is more interesting to see how the soil survives than how the plants do. Most people think soil is dead material, while in fact it is full with activity of bacteria, fungi, insects, earthworms, nematodes and more. Growing anything usefull requires good soil. Once we know how soil biology behaves in Lunar conditions, we might be able to come up with a way to convert Lunar regolith into useable soil.
    • by khallow (566160)
      I imagine that's part of the point of the experiment. A plant that is kept alive would imply that its soil was kept alive as well.
  • by ReallyEvilCanine (991886) on Thursday November 21, 2013 @07:12AM (#45480219) Homepage
    You'd think NASA didn't know about taking baby steps, as if they'd gone to the Moon first and decided to work on that boring stable orbit shit later. They should be growing crabgrass, dandelions, and kudzu first. Shit that you have to fight like hell to get to stop growing. Shit that doesn't care how badly you treat it or how poor the conditions are. Bonus: dandelion leaves and kudzu are edible.

    While regolith ain't soil, it can be used as a basic substrate [nih.gov] which hearty weeds wouldn't complain about.

    • If you can grow crabgrass, dandelions, and kudzu, then you could grow basil and turnips instead with no substantial difference in difficulty. What's the real difference? Astronauts would rather eat basil-turnips stew than kudzu crabgrass salad. The experiment is actually somewhat needed since it'll give us better estimates on the amount of area food production will take (it depends on the growth rate of the foods).

      If we're talking terraforming and not just growing goodies to eat in a mostly closed cycle

  • ok, coffee can sized aluminum containers? Clearly you've not been reading High Times. Rather than trying to invent new ways to grow plants in confined spaces with limited resources and light, why not ask the people who've been doing it for decades?

  • When the phase of the moon is in the dark, what would have to be done?
  • If they are successful, it will be the first time humans have ever brought life to another planetary body.

    It think that's a very optimistic statement.

  • I'm a farmer on the moon
    I till with a harpoon
    But there ain't water
    So I have my daughter
    Sing this jaunty tune!

    Take it Crushinator!
    • I'm a farmer on the moon
        I till with a harpoon
        But there ain't water
        So I have my daughter

      Moonshine in lieu of water? Ensuing drunken incest?

      Let's face it, you're actually a farmer on the Ozarks, not the Moon.

  • I think they're starting with plants (that require carbon dioxide to create food) when there's no carbon dioxide on the moon, at least not where plants could utilize it for photosynthesis, when what I think would be better, and probably more in tune with how Nature works, would be fungi of a wide variety. Fungi don't need carbon dioxide from the air, they use oxygen from the ground. The moon has water in the form of ice all in the soil, we're told. Fungi would be so much better to start off with for so m
  • I'm a doctor, not an gardener!

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