Nasa is planning to grow plants on the Moon for the first time by sending basil, turnip and cress seeds on a mission that will land on the lunar surface.
It might make a more appetising soup than a salad. Nasa is to send turnip, cress and basil seeds to the Moon in an attempt to grow them.
The experiment will be the first attempt to germinate plants on another world.
The seeds will be housed inside a specially constructed canister, known as the Lunar Plant Growth Chamber, that will carry enough air for 10 days.
Nasa says the air in the chamber would be adequate to allow the seeds to sprout and grow for five days.
It is hoped that the latest experiment will help to pave the way for astronauts to grow their own food while living on a lunar base.
The mission is due to launch in 2015 as part of the Moon Express lander – a commercial project to land on the Moon.
Nasa said it would use natural sunlight to germinate the plants inside the chamber and the seeds would grow on pieces of filter paper laden with nutrients.
In effect it is a recreation of one of the first science experiments that most schoolchildren conduct – growing cress seedlings on filter paper.
A statement from the office of the chief technologist at Nasa Ames Research Centre said growing plants on the Moon could also help assess the lunar surface’s suitability for supporting life.
It said that sending plants to the moon was the first step in the long term goal of getting humans to live and work on the lunar surface.
It said: “As seedlings, they can be as sensitive as humans to environmental conditions, sometimes even more so.
“They carry genetic material that can be damaged by radiation as can that of humans.
“They can test the lunar environment for us acting as a ‘canary in a coal mine’.
“If we send plants and they thrive, then we probably can. Thriving plants are needed for life support – food, air, water – for colonists.
“And plants provide psychological comfort, as the popularity of the greenhouses in Antarctica and on the Space Station show.”
Experiments on the International Space Station have shown that plants can grow in low gravity environments.
The tests have shown that plant roots, which obtain nutrients and provide stability to growing plants, appear to grow in a similar way in space as they do on Earth.
It suggests that the direction that light comes from plays an important role in helping plants orientate themselves while gravity is less important.
It has raised hopes that astronauts on long term space missions will be able to grow food for themselves.
The lunar plant growth mission will not see any of the seeds being planted into the Moon’s soil.
The dust on the lunar surface lacks many of the nutrients needed to support plant life as it has none of the decomposed organic material that forms much of the soil on Earth.
Instead more than 100 cress, or Arabidopsis as it is also known, seeds will be germinated on nutrient laden filter paper inside a “self contained habitat”.
This will act as a model for future bio-domes where astronauts can grow plants on the Moon. Scientists already believe there could be sufficient water for a lunar base hidden in impact craters and the soil on the Moon.
Cress is an important plant for scientists as it is often used in laboratories for plant gene research.
Radiation levels on the Moon are far higher than on the Earth as it has no atmosphere to filter out the most damaging of the Sun’s rays.
Temperatures on the surface of the Moon can also vary wildly – reaching more than 100 degrees C (212F) during the day and growing as cold as -173 degrees C (-279F) at night.
The morning frost after a night that cold would leave many gardeners disheartened.
A single “day” on the Moon last around 28 Earth days.
This means that plants will need kept a stable temperatures while also being shielded from the potentially damaging radiation that could harm the DNA and cause mutations.
The Lunar Plant Growth Chamber is expected to weigh around 2.2lbs and will also carry 10 seeds each of basil and turnips.
Upon landing on the Moon a trigger would release a small reservoir of water to wet the filter paper and initiate the germination of the seeds.
Photographs of the seedlings would be taken at regular intervals to monitor their progress and compare them to seedlings being growing in similar conditions on Earth.
They will monitor the leaf size and growth rate of the plants.
Nasa said it would use natural sunlight on the moon as the source of illumination rather than artificial light.
It said the mission was the first “in situ resource utilisation demonstration”.
Nasa has ambitions to establish a permanent base on the Moon and there were plans to use this as a staging post for missions to Mars.
Private companies have also expressed interest in setting up a base no the Moon so they can mine some of the natural resources there.
Following the Lunar Growth experiment Nasa said it would send further experiments to see how plants survive through the lunar night and even would breed plants on the Moon.
It said: “Survival to 14 days demonstrates plants can sprout in the Moon’s radiation environment at 1/6 g.
“Survival to 60 days demonstrates that sexual reproduction can occur in a lunar environment.
“Survival to 180 days shows effects of radiation on dominant and recessive genetic traits.
“Afterwards, the experiment may run for months through multiple generations, increasing science return.”