Twelve grams of lunar Earth were delivered in a mail package: Robert Ferrell, a biologist at the University of Florida, had to wait more than ten years to get it. The small box, which was sealed by NASA, contains some of the last unopened samples of lunar dust or regolith, collected by Apollo astronauts at the time. This allowed Ferrell and his team to grow plants in real lunar soil for the first time.
The experiment is part of a series of studies conducted by NASA. The organization plans to send people to the moon later this decade and build an outpost there. The mission should become a rehearsal for future trips to Mars. For such long missions, astronauts will need a sustainable food source.
To test the lunar Earth, Ferrell divided the samples into twelve 900-milligram packages. He planted the seeds of Arabidopsis thaliana, a relative of mustard and cabbage. All seeds germinated successfully, but often a healthy root system is left.
Plants can’t really thrive. The chandelier contained a lot of salt and minerals for that. Moondust also lacks a natural microbiome, which enhances nutrient absorption. And if water is added to it, regolith can become as compact as cement.
Future lunar farmers may need to fertilize the regolith. They will need to add nutrients or compost crops. It should promote microbial growth. Moreover, scientists suspect that the lunar soil is more fertile than the soil of the Red Planet. The Martian regolith is full of perchlorate, an oxidizing compound that can be harmful to both plants and animals.
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