Monday, December 2, 2013

Grey Moon, Green Moon: NASA Wants to Make Its Next "Giant Leap" With Just Plants


In the 1960s, NASA sent robotic probes and landers to test the lunar environment before sending men. In the 2010s, the agency is sending plants in advance of its manned missions. A NASA experiment set to launch in late 2015 aboard the Moon Express lander, one of the contestants vying for the Google Lunar X-Prize, will see whether plants can grow and thrive on the Moon, the idea being that if plants can call the Moon home, at least temporarily and with all the necessities provided, humans will be able to as well.

Aside from the lack of breathable air and readily tillable soil, the Moon presents some challenges for life. Even with a habitat, the amount of solar radiation that hits the Moon is a challenge, as is the limited gravity. The Moon only has about one-sixth of Earth's pull.

This plant-based mission is designed as a technological demonstration aimed at gathering data on germination and plant growth in a lunar environment with a focus on the increased solar radiation and weaker gravitational environment. NASA is planning to send a 2.2 pound unit housing roughly 100 seeds of Arabidopsis, 10 basil seeds, and 10 turnip seeds. Their only light source will be direct sunlight and the light reflected off the Moon’s surface. What happens when water is added to the small experiment bay is the crux of the experiment. 

Seedlings, it turns out, are a pretty good stand-in for humans. Like us, seedlings are extremely sensitive to their environmental surroundings and carry genetic material that can be damaged by radiation. Putting plants on the Moon in advance of humans is sort of like testing the survivability of a mine by putting a canary in the shaft before sending down miners.

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