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NASA’s Next Frontier: Growing Plants On The Moon

A small team at NASA’s Ames Research Center has set out to “boldly grow where no man has grown before” – and they’re doing it with the help of thousands of children, a robot, and a few specially customized GoPro cameras.

In 2015, NASA will attempt to make history by growing plants on the Moon. If they are successful, it will be the first time humans have ever brought life to another planetary body. Along the way, they will make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of biology, agriculture, and life on other worlds. And though they may fail, the way they are going about their mission presents a fascinating case study of an innovative model for public-private collaboration that may very well change space entrepreneurship.

The Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team, a group of NASA scientists, contractors, students and volunteers, is finally bringing to life an idea that has been discussed and debated for decades. They will try to grow arabidopsis, basil, sunflowers, and turnips in coffee-can-sized aluminum cylinders that will serve as plant habitats. But these are no ordinary containers – they’re packed to the brim with cameras, sensors, and electronics that will allow the team to receive image broadcasts of the plants as they grow. These habitats will have to be able to successfully regulate their own temperature, water intake, and power supply in order to brave the harsh lunar climate.

imageA 3d-printed model of the plant habitat – it will include cameras, sensors, micro fluidics system, and a seed module needed to sustain life on another world. Credit: Hemil Modi

However, it won’t just be NASA scientists who are watching the results closely – the success of this experiment will require the assistance of schools and citizen scientists.

In a brilliant mix of creativity and frugality, NASA will send schools their own set of habitats so they can grow the same plants that are being sent to the Moon. The reasons for this are two fold. First, every experiment needs a control, and instead of spending the money to duplicate the experiment multiple times, they can crowdsource it. By collecting the data from thousands of experiments, they can gain valuable insights in an entirely new way. Second, it allows children to be part of the moment – to not just watch from afar, but to gain experience and knowledge by actively participating.

It is quite unusual to hear of a significant NASA project that is so simple, small-scale, and low-cost. Thanks to the rapid advances in consumer electronics over the last few years, parts that would have once cost millions of dollars now cost just hundreds. But what really made this project feasible was an unexpected opportunity: the Google Lunar X Prize, the search giant’s twenty-million-dollar incentive prize for a private company to launch a robotic spacecraft that lands on the moon, travels across the surface, and transmits back two “Mooncasts” by December 31, 2015. Multiple teams are competing – and whoever ends up winning will likely fly with this special payload on board.

imageLearn more about the Google Lunar X Prize. Watch the video for an 8-minute mission overview.

With this model NASA doesn’t have to spend tens of millions of dollars or wait years for the next mission to the Moon. According to Dr. Chris McKay, a well-renowned planetary scientist, this project would have cost $300 million two decades ago – now, NASA can build and launch it for under $2 million. It serves as a win for both NASA and private space industry. Dr. McKay compared it to the early days of airplanes and airmail, “Just like we buy tickets on commercial airlines, why shouldn’t we buy space on commercial flights?”

Without this opportunity, it’s uncertain this project would have ever gotten off the ground – and that would have meant a major missed opportunity not only for future astronauts, but also for people here on Earth as well.

“With the competition underway, many of these capabilities are in development or expected. Nonetheless, given that the Google Lunar XPRIZE teams are – by their very nature – characterized by strong innovation and enterprise, it is reasonable to assume that these capabilities will be established and not improbable that further market opportunities could be developed,” said Greg Sadlier, who led the study. “Notably, many of the opportunities we have identified could be served without actually winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE, or even achieving orbit.”
Via recommended article: "Study Estimates Market Worth $1.9 Billion For Google Lunar XPRIZE Competitors Within A Decade" [spacefellowship]

To Dr. McKay, this is “step one in the quest to develop biological based life support systems on other worlds;” or, to put it another way, “this is the Neil Armstrong of the plant world.” The conditions of the moon are more characteristic of deep space than anywhere else we can access and quite different than growing plants on a space shuttle or space station. This experiment will test whether plants can survive radiation, flourish in partial gravity, and thrive in a small, controlled environment – the same obstacles that we will need to overcome in order to build a greenhouse on the Moon, or create life on Mars.

We may also learn a great deal about how to grow food in inhospitable climates here on our own planet. Dr. Robert Bowman, the team’s chief biologist, described how plants constantly have to cope with harsh environments and threats: “Simply knowing how plants deal with stress on the moon can really tell us a lot about how they deal with stress right here on Earth.” We know how plants are affected by conditions like drought – by exposing them to entirely new factors, we can advance our understanding of how they function.

Even if the seeds fail to germinate on the Moon, the fact that NASA is taking targeted risks without incurring significant costs could change business-as-usual for the once-legendary institution. Like most bureaucracies NASA has become quite risk averse and sensitive to perceptions of failure. But with commercial partnerships, they can experience a flop without necessarily having it make national headlines – they don’t have to put their entire reputation on the line every single time.

imageRead about Google Lunar XPRIZE team “Astrobiotic" and the robot they’ll be landing on the moon, launching aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in December 2013 [Wired]

It may not be too long before space exploration missions are conducted more like technology startups and less like government programs. Dr. McKay sees a world of possibilities emerging from this democratization: “I see much better, more innovative experiments. When your experiment costs 300 million dollars, and you do one a decade, you can’t take any risks. You’ve got to be very conservative in what you do. But if your experiment is a million dollars and being done by grad students, you can do crazy and brilliant things.”

Whenever we do spread life beyond our own planet, it will fundamentally change our cultural perception of what is possible. As Dr. Pete Worden, Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, explained excitedly, “The first picture of a plant growing on another world – that picture will live forever. It will be as iconic as the first footprint on the moon.” Just like the Apollo missions drove an entire generation to embrace technology and science, making the final frontier more accessible will inspire us to strive for even greater accomplishments.

“The breadth and the size of these projected markets are attributes of a new era of lunar exploration quite different from the Apollo era,” said Alexandra Hall, Senior Director of the Google Lunar XPRIZE. “Our teams and their investors are seeing future opportunities and taking the steps now to ensure that they will be among the first companies to leverage them.”

Sources: Forbes; Image (main) via "25 Good Reasons To Go To The Moon" by science blogger Ken Murphy; Quotes excerpted via spacefellowship article HERE.

Hm, let’s see…growing life on another world, learning about how plants deal with stress, getting the public involved, and doing it for under $2 million?

Could this be the best thing ever?!?!?



Happy Moon Day - July 20, 2013

"We have walked on the moon. We open our minds to the universe."

"Locked within our sun are mysteries that have confounded man since time began. We have reached out with our telescopes. We have reached in with our microscopes. Seeking… What is the source of life?. What combination of energy and elements brought it into existence. What is the relationship between the non-living and living things. How delicate the balance. Man slowly begins to realize how fragile is his bubble of life.” - Moonwalk One - 1969/1970

The Apollo 11 mission launched on July 16th, 1969, successfully landed on the moon on this date, July 20, 1969. 

"3 Men who had done what no man has done before. A technological feat believed beyond the realm of possibility.. The fulfillment of an age old dream.. Something that touched an irrational, unthinking instinct in us all."


“The Moon Once Harbored a Dynamic Molten Core” —MIT

MIT’s research on an ancient lunar rock suggests that the moon once harbored a long-lived dynamo — a molten, convecting core of liquid metal that generated a strong magnetic field 3.7 billion years ago. The findings, published in Science, point to a dynamo that lasted much longer than scientists previously thought, and suggest that an alternative energy source may have powered the dynamo.  

“The moon has this protracted history that’s surprising,” says co-author Benjamin Weiss, an associate professor of planetary science at MIT. “This provides evidence of a fundamentally new way of making a magnetic field in a planet a new power source.”

Continue reading “”The Moon Once Harbored a Dynamic Molten Core” —MIT (Weekend Feature)” »


New Theory: A “Hit and Run” Accident Created Our Moon

How did Earth get its own Moon? For decades, the most popular origin story has been the “Big Splat” theory, which says an object the size of Mars impacted the Earthmore than three billion years ago, flinging material into space which became the Moon.

But now there’s new evidence that the Big Splat theory may be incorrect — and the impact that created the Moon may have been more like a hit-and-run accident.

Read the full study in Nature Geoscience.


On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew opened the door of the lunar module and Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the lunar surface.  Armstrong’s radio back to Earth that his was ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ became instantly one of the most quoted and known phrases uttered in the name of science.  The Apollo program was started less than a decade earlier with success following success.  Named by then NASA Director Abe Silverstein (who later said it was like naming his baby) after the Ancient Greek god known for knowledge and who was represented as a flaming chariot shooting across the sky.  Hats off today to Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins.  All born in 1930 and still healthy and looking to the skies.  

Thanks also to the flight crew:

Support crew

  • Charlie Duke, Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM)
  • Ronald Evans (CAPCOM)
  • Owen K. Garriott (CAPCOM)
  • Don L. Lind (CAPCOM)
  • Ken Mattingly (CAPCOM)
  • Bruce McCandless II (CAPCOM)
  • Harrison Schmitt (CAPCOM)
  • Bill Pogue
  • Jack Swigert

Flight directors

  • Cliff Charlesworth (Green Team), launch andEVA
  • Gene Kranz(White Team), lunar landing
  • Glynn Lunney(Black Team), lunar ascent

All images courtesy NASA, used with permission and in the public domain.  Please copy and share!

I got a text from my dad this morning, saying “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” That’s his way of reminding me that today is the anniversary of the Moon landing.


Question Over Theory of Lunar Formation

Titanium signature poses puzzle for popular theory of Moon’s origin.

A chemical analysis of lunar rocks may force scientists to revise the leading theory for the Moon’s formation: that the satellite was born when a Mars-sized body smacked into the infant Earth some 4.5 billion years ago.

If that were the case, the Moon ought to bear the chemical signature of both Earth and its proposed ‘second’ parent. But a study published today in Nature Geoscience1 suggests that the Moon’s isotopic composition reflects only Earth’s contribution.

Read More


NASA GRAIL returns first student-selected Moon images

This image of the far side of the lunar surface, with Earth in the background, was taken by the MoonKAM system board the Ebb spacecraft. Fourth grade students from the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont., received the honor of making the first image selections by winning a nationwide competition to rename the two spacecraft.

Previously named Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) A and B, the twin spacecraft are now called Ebb and Flow. Both washing-machine-sized orbiters carry a small MoonKAM camera. Over 60 student-requested images were taken by the Ebb spacecraft from March 15-17 and downlinked to Earth March 20.

MoonKAM is based on the premise that if your average picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture from lunar orbit may be worth a classroom full of engineering and science degrees. Through MoonKAM, students have an opportunity to reach out to the next generation of scientists and engineers.

GRAIL is NASA’s first planetary mission to carry instruments fully dedicated to education and public outreach. Students will select target areas on the lunar surface and request images to study from the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center in San Diego.


At the West Wall of Aristarchus Crater

Aristarchus Plateau is anchored in the vast lava flows of the Moon’s Oceanus Procellarum. At the plateau’s southeastern edge lies the spectacular Aristarchus Crater, an impact crater 40 kilometers wide and 3 kilometers deep. Scan along this remarkable panorama and you will find yourself gazing directly at the crater’s west wall for some 25 kilometers. Features along the terraced wall include dark impact melt and debris deposits, bright excavated material, and boulders over 100 meters wide. At a full resolution of 1.6 meters per pixel, the sharp mosaic was created from images recorded by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s narrow angle camera in November of 2011. The orbiter’s vantage point was 70 kilometers east of the crater’s center and only 26 kilometers above the lunar surface.

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