In 2015, NASA will plant the first moon garden—a tiny greenhouse filled with basil, turnips, and Arabidopsis, a small plant related to cabbage.
"This is fundamental biology," says Bob Bowman, a research scientist for Lockheed Martin at NASA’s Ames Research Center. "Nobody has grown plants on the moon before. For that matter, no one’s done a live science experiment in deep space before. So we’re on the edge here trying to figure out how to do this."
The seeds will hitch a ride with a commercial spacecraft to save the government money. Since Google is offering $20 million to the first company that can launch a robotic spacecraft to the moon (and successfully send back two "mooncasts" by the end of 2015), NASA plans to send the garden along with whichever company wins.
Because the moon has a lunar day equivalent to 28 Earth days—14 days of continuous sunlight followed by 14 days of continuous darkness—the first lunar garden won’t last very long. "That continuous darkness is devastating because it’s on the order of 150 degrees Fahrenheit below zero," explains Bowman. "Our little experiment is going to land somewhere around dawn of the lunar daylight period. We only have 14 days before everything freezes rock solid." They expect the garden will last four to six days, or perhaps stretch to all 14 days if they’re very lucky.
After the spacecraft’s lander makes it to the surface of the moon and sets up communications with Earth, the scientists can trigger a small reservoir of water to wet the seeds inside a small, sealed growth chamber. Filter paper inside the container provides nutrients, and the air sealed inside should keep the seeds alive as the natural sunlight on the moon triggers growth.
As the experiment goes along, NASA is inviting students to help them run controls back on Earth. Bowman says: "We envision having the pictures available in more or less real time, so students can tune in and see how the plants are doing today. Even if we fail, that’s a very valuable learning experience. It draws young people not just to watch, but actually to participate, and that’s the key element of it right there. They’re doing lunar research just like we are."
Though the purpose of the moon garden is focused on the actual moon—to understand what lunar life might be possible, as a first step in perhaps sending people to live on the moon someday—Bowman says the results might also but useful for agriculture on Earth. Plants encounter stresses like drought and heat here on Earth, but on the moon, they'll experience conditions that no living organism has ever encountered. "We’re looking at the fundamental aspects that control how plants grow," Bowman says.
Mostly, Bowman is excited about the possibility to do something that's never been done before and share it with students. "It’s cool to grow plants on the moon, what can I say," he says. "I'm an old educator from a long time ago, and if you ask me why do I want to do this, I want to grow plants on the moon, but I also cherish the opportunity to hopefully encourage young minds to think about science."