NASA teams with Google to grow plants on the moon by 2015 to create habitable environment

moon-640x353By James Plafke

Everyone dreams about what living on some distant celestial body would be like. The human race has only ever stepped foot on our moon, though, and it’s not a habitable environment. However, NASA is looking to change that, starting with growing plants on the lunar surface.

While we’re not even remotely close to having sci-fi domed habitable zones on anything but Earth, growing plants is a vital step toward sustainability in a new environment. Aside from the obvious life support that vegetation would provide — air, food, and water — it would also provide another integral aspect to a habitable lunar environment. Plants react to aspects of a harsh environment similarly to humans, as their genetic material can be damaged by radiation. A relatively safe way to test long-term lunar exposure is to send some plants up there and monitor their health. NASA likens this to being like sending a canary into a coal mine. Rather than making the trip and dropping the plants off itself, NASA plans to use commercial spaceflight as the vehicle by which the plants will be sent up to the moon.

Obviously, the plants can’t be embedded into the lunar surface then left alone, so NASA is constructing a small, lightweight (a little over two pounds), self-sustaining habitat for the vegetation. The habitat will be delivered to the moon via the Moon Express, a lunar lander that’s part of the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition to create a robotic spacecraft that can fly to and land on the moon.

Once the lander arrives on the moon, water will be added to basil, turnip, and Arabidopsis (a small flowering plant) seeds kept in the habitat, then monitored for five to 10 days and compared to controls back on Earth. NASA will also monitor the actual habitat itself, looking toward its scalability since a two-pound habitat won’t support human life.

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