ANU is collaborating with Australian startup Lunaria One to grow plants on the Moon.
The Australian National University (ANU) has announced that it will be part of an international collaboration helping to grow plants on the lunar surface in the next few years. The other institutions include the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), RMIT University and Ben Gurion University in Israel, as well as various industry bodies.
The project is led by Aussie startup Lunaria One. Named the Australian Lunar Experiment Promoting Horticulture (ALEPH), the aim is to study how plants will fare on the lunar surface.
The importance of plant research for space
The ALEPH-1 study by Lunaria, ANU and their collaborators is an important step towards creating a sustainable, closed system off-world. Plants are an important part of our ecosystem, whether they are our food, medicine or oxygen production, and this will be no different when we establish a settlement on the Moon. However, it has been shown that some plants grow differently in altered gravity conditions, but it is not fully understood how and why this happens. In addition, the lunar environment is harsh: it has a thin atmosphere, rapidly changing temperatures, and a relatively nutrient-depleted regolith (soil), meaning that whatever we grow on the surface will need to be more hardy and tolerant than the usual garden-variety plant.
"Space is an exceptional testing ground for how to propagate plants in the most extreme of environments," said Associate Professor Caitlin Byrt from the ANU Research School of Biology as well as the ANU Institute for Space (InSpace). Byrt is also a science advisor for Lunaria One.
Australia’s expertise in harsh environments
Australia is one of the driest continents on Earth, and where there is a dry climate, there are hardy plants. Conveniently, one of the plants being considered for the mission will be an Australian native ‘resurrection’ grass known as Tripogon loliiformis. It can survive in a dormant state for months without water, appearing ‘dead’, but when watered, it unfurls and ‘resurrects’ into a green plant. This fascinating feature of the plant makes it ideal for surviving a long journey to the Moon or Mars.
To that end, the seeds and plants of the chosen species will be transported in a specially designed hermetically sealed chamber equipped with sensors, a camera and water on SpaceIL’s Beresheet 2 spacecraft.
"The seeds and resurrection plants can survive in a dehydrated dormant state and will be carried in a hermetically sealed chamber on the lunar lander and, we hope, germinate and reactivate upon watering," said Dr Brett Williams, a plant biologist from QUT.
On landing, the plants will be monitored for 72 hours, and the data will be transmitted back to Earth. Career scientists, citizen scientists and school children from around the world will be invited to use the data to conduct their own research, with the goal of identifying which plants can grow best on the Moon.
This educational, accessible component is what makes the project particularly special. "The key to this mission is to get humans involved and to give them a say in how we get there. The ALEPH project aims to open up the science and engineering behind growing life on the moon so that anyone can be involved,” Lunaria One Director Lauren Fell from QUT remarked.
Space plant research for changing climate on Earth
The ALEPH mission could offer significant spin-off benefits for life on Earth. Extreme environments don’t just belong to outer space: in a changing climate, there are increasingly more weather disasters occurring everywhere, which is threatening plant health and food security.
The researchers hope that studying various species of low-maintenance plants will reveal new ways to boost sustainable food production, which is especially critical for communities that are more severely affected by climate change. For example, ALEPH could help inform the creation of controlled horticultural environments that can facilitate the rapid propagation of plants in times of need.
"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,” said Byrt.
The interdisciplinary collaboration brings some of Australia’s leading plant and space researchers together for a worthy cause, both on and off Earth.