In what marks an important step towards helping lunar colonists grow their own food, a Ukrainian team, working with the European Space Agency, ESA, has shown that marigolds can grow in crushed rock very like the lunar surface, with no need for plant food.
The research was presented at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna, by Dr Bernard Foing of ESA, director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group, and father of the SMART-1 moon probe, who believes it is an important milestone because it does away with the need to bring bringing nutrients and soil from Earth.
He has worked with Natasha Kozyrovska and Iryna Zaetz from the Ukranian Academy of Sciences in Kiev, who planted marigolds in crushed anorthosite, a type of rock found on Earth which is very similar to lunar soil, called regolith.
They did not grow well until the team added different types of bacteria, which made them thrive; the bacteria appeared to leach elements from the rock that the plants needed, such as potassium.
Even better, bacteria are able to withstand extremely tough conditions, so would be an ideal way to fertilise lunar crops. “That is the new aspect of this work,” says Dr Foing, who presented the study at the EGU meeting, said there was no reason in principle why the same idea could not bear fruit on the Moon itself.
He is pinning his hopes on a ESA proposal for a mission called Moon Next, which would probably deploy a roving vehicle in about 2015, or on a subsequent Lunar Logistics Lander, scheduled for 2016-17.
As well as marigolds, he says that tulips, cabbages and arabidopsis (a weed, the most studied plant on the planet) could be grown on the moon.
Tulips are handy because they can be frozen, transported long distances and grown with little nourishment. Combined with algae, an enclosed artificial atmosphere and the bacterially enhanced lunar soil, they could form the basis of a precursor lunar “ecosystem.”