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From lava to landscaping: scientists advance lunar research

A mission led my UCF scientists will visit the moon's Gruithuisen Domes. NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
A mission led my UCF scientists will visit the moon's Gruithuisen Domes. NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Lunar research is not only taking one giant leap—but two—as a team sends a spacecraft to a geological mystery and another grows plants in lunar soil brought back to Earth. 

As a team from the University of Central Florida is sending a mission to an uncharted area of the moon, researchers from the University of Florida worked with NASA to successfully grow plants in lunar soil. 

At UCF, planetary scientists Addie Dove and Kerri Donaldson Hanna will use $35 million from NASA to send a lander and rover to the Gruithuisen Domes, the dark volcanic plains on the side of the moon nearest to Earth.  Spacecraft that have flown over the region show they are made from cooled and hardened magma—much like Mount Saint Helens here on Earth. 

“These domes are really of interest because their composition and shape are really distinct from the surrounding volcanic plains,” Donaldson Hanna said. “This uniqueness tells us that perhaps the moon was warmer for longer than we anticipated, and maybe there was even some water in its interior to help create those compositions.” 

LISTEN: Hear more about this new chapter of lunar science on Are We There Yet?, WMFE’s space exploration podcast. 

Artemis is NASA’s next set of missions aimed at sending humans to the moon by the mid-2020s. The launch of the spacecraft by the UCF team will help with those efforts. The images collected by the cameras sent to the moon will greatly inform scientists and engineers about crucial details of the moon that we’ve been missing.

“When we think back to the Apollo era, landing sites were selected based on where it was safe, where it was easy and where we could have good communications,” Donaldson Hanna said. “Now with Artemis ramping up we literally can now land on top of a volcanic dome, which is what we’re going to do.”

New insight

Both the lander and rover will be equipped with high-tech cameras; the lander will have two cameras so that the team can see what’s happening during the descent of the spacecraft and what the landing site looks like, said Dove.

“We have a visible near-infrared camera and a thermal camera as well as a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer (gRNS) on the rover,” Dove said. “That’ll be the first time we’ve actually had a gRNS on a rover on the moon, or anywhere on the moon.”

This technology will offer lunar scientists some insight into one of the most unpredictable aspects of the moon—dust. Lunar regolith can greatly alter the conditions on which spacecraft land on. It’s hard to see through and the particles themselves are sharp. Studying how moon dust behaves in this location can help those building future spacecraft to accommodate for the harsh conditions of lunar landing. 

“Because these domes are in an area that’s unlike anything we’ve been to before, there might be some different features to the mineralogy,” Dove said. “That will influence the behavior of the dust on the surface.”

Growth potential

Dove and Donaldson Hanna’s team is not the only group investigating the dirt on the moon. Another team of researchers from NASA and the University of Florida is studying the possibility of growing plants on the lunar surface. 

NASA senior scientist Sharmila Bhattacharya was a part of the groundbreaking work to successfully grow the world’s first plant in authentic soil harvested from the moon, putting the agency one step closer to establishing a permanent human presence on the moon. 

“The reason I think that we’re so excited with this result is the fact that we really didn’t know if plants would be able to grow in this type of material,” Bhattacharya said. “The results were in fact that yes, using the Arabidopsis thaliana model plant. All of the seeds that we tested with these three different regolith samples from Apollo 11, 12 and 17 actually resulted in the Arabidopsis growing.”

The research was conducted with genuine lunar soil so that the team could ensure that not only could they grow plants in real dirt from the moon, but that they could grow plants in soil that is abrasive and differs in texture based on the area, making the project even more of a challenge. 

“It goes back to the 60s and 70s when during the Apollo era astronauts worked with gathering samples from the surface of the moon to bring back to Earth,” Bhattacharya said. “They have, for the most part, been kept extremely carefully in a way that their chemical and physical structure won’t be altered by the conditions on Earth.”

This made the research all the more crucial—they had a very limited amount of lunar soil to utilize in their testing. The researchers from the university also used simulant regolith as a control substance in the preliminary stages of trials which allowed NASA to conduct the same experimentation in three different types of lunar soil. 

Given the adjusted conditions necessary to help the plants to grow during testing, such as light and nutrients, the team was able to draw conclusions based on the results, giving researchers insight into the possible effects of growing plants on the lunar surface. 

“This is pretty unusual material. It’s jagged and it can have these highly oxidizing components in it,” Bhattacharya said. “The plants are definitely reacting to it and showing signs of stress—but they’re able to grow.”

Not only is NASA’s goal to be able to grow plants that can offer supplemental nutrition to future astronauts, but growing plants in places other than the Earth’s surface could have more benefits than one might originally think. 

“We don’t actually realize how much we as humans rely on having this greenery around us for our quality of life. Even on the International Space Station, where the crew can be there sometimes for months on end, they’re away from their family and they’re working very hard,” Bhattacharya said. “What we have found that the data shows is that the crew, humans, are very, very positively stimulated by having plants around them.”

Research efforts similar to NASA’s and UF’s will continue to study how plants grow and thrive, along with the newfound knowledge of what scientists learned from growing plants in lunar soil, to develop sustainable long-term plans for growing plants away from the surface of the Earth. 

“We’re hoping in the next several years that the commercial partners will bring stations in low Earth orbit where we can then continue this research on, and then of course on the surface of the moon,” Bhattacharya said.

Copyright 2022 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

Caroline Brauchler