We now know that plants survive but fail to thrive in lunar soil
Twelve grams of the moon arrived at Robert Ferl’s laboratory in an undecorated UPS box.
Ferl, a horticulturist at the University of Florida, had waited more than a decade for that moment. The small box of dirt, postmarked from NASA, held some of the last remaining unopened samples of moon dust, or regolith, collected by astronauts on the Apollo 11, 12, and 17 missions. Despite months of practice, Ferl recalls, he lifted the sample with trembling hands. “It’s freaky, scary stuff. I mean, what happens if you drop that?” he says. Ferl and his team were about to become the first researchers to grow plants in actual lunar soil.
The experiment was green-lit as part of a recent boom in lunar research fueled by NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send humans back to the moon later this decade. This time around, NASA wants to explore the moon more sustainably by creating surface outposts for longer-duration stays, as well as a lunar-orbiting space station called Gateway—both vital dress rehearsals, the space agency says, for eventual astronautical voyages to Mars. Scientists believe that these longer missions will necessitate a sustainable source of food. “All of human exploration has been driven by the ability to keep crews fed,” says Gil Cauthorn, an Osaka, Japan-based researcher at the Astrobotany International Research Initiative.
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