First step for Australian biologists as study begins to grow durable and sustainable plants in space


Australian scientists have begun working with a space start-up on a plan to grow plants on the Moon in less than four years.

The researchers say it could be the first step towards growing plants for food, medicine and oxygen on the lunar surface, and help enable human life on the Moon.

Scientists from the Queensland University of Technology, RMIT University, the Australian National University and Israel’s Ben Gurion University are working with Australian company Lunaria One on the project, known as ALEPH.

They will choose the plant species they work with carefully, based on how quickly they germinate and how well they tolerate extreme temperature swings.

Lunaria One director Lauren Fell said the goal was to put a shoebox-sized, hermetically sealed chamber, or “lunarium”, full of plants and seeds, on an international spacecraft to the Moon.

However, before the plants get to their final destination, they have to survive the gruelling journey into space.

“We have to find species that will be able to tolerate a wide range of temperatures that can go from freezing to maybe up to 40 or 50 degrees centigrade,” she said.

“And then once they get to the Moon and have survived that … be able to grow within some other temperature and difficult conditions.

“There’s radiation that happens up there without an atmosphere to protect it and the difference in gravity — we still have a lot to learn about how that will affect plants.”

Resilient native

One plant in the running to be sent in the lunarium is an Australian native resurrection grass known scientifically as Tripogon loliiformis.

Caitlin Byrt, an ANU plant biologist and Lunaria One science lead, believes the native grass is able to endure harsh conditions and survive in a dormant state for months without any water.

“They can stay in that stasis mode for quite a period of time and then, upon re-watering, return to blooming,” she said.

“Space is an exceptional testing ground for how to propagate plants in the most extreme of environments.”

Dr Byrt also compared the conditions for which the plants were being prepared with future challenges to food security on Earth due to the changing climate.

“The extreme conditions that Earth is facing due to climate change present challenges for how we manage food security in the future,” she said.

“If you can create a system for growing plants on the Moon, then you can create a system for growing food in some of the most challenging environments on Earth.

“You want to have the type of resources that can enable you to rapidly, regardless of the conditions, provide food for those in need.”

The first step

Project organisers are planning to have the seeds transported on board a private mission to the Moon run by Israeli organisation SpaceIL, in a chamber containing sensors, a camera and water.

After landing on the Moon, researchers say the health of the plants will be monitored for 72 hours, and data will be beamed back to Earth to allow citizen scientists and school children to conduct their own experiments.

“The key to this mission is to get humans involved and to give them a say in how we get there,” Ms Fell said.

“The ALEPH project aims to open up the science and engineering behind growing life on the Moon so that anyone can be involved.

“When we do eventually start to colonise the Moon, Mars and beyond, we will need to grow plants for eating but also for wellbeing.

“This is just the first step to see how we can achieve that.”

ABC News, 9 October 2022