NASA Ames Works on Growing Plants on the Moon

NASA Ames’s Lunar Plant Habitat promises to be the first method of growing plants on the moon. (Credit: NASA)

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. (NASA PR) — Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center have developed a process for growing plants on the moon (T0140)–a method tested successfully in the lab and matured, in part, through the Flight Opportunities program.

Prior to flight tests of Ames’s Lunar Plant Habitat, no plant-based biological spaceflight experiment had ever hydrated seeds in lunar gravity. Scientists had only performed hydration of seeds at 1 g because they anticipated that the presence of bubbles or of uneven dispersion would result in inferior water distribution in lunar gravity.

Ames’s Lunar Plant Habitat addresses this challenge using a direct pressure pump that works even with air bubbles present, passing water to osmosis paper to distribute it evenly to plant seeds. The technology promises to be the first method of growing plants on the moon and is a direct response to the Decadal Survey calling for investigations into the role of plants in long-term lunar life support.

With the Lunar Plant Habitat tested successfully in ground-based experiments, Ames researchers turned to Flight Opportunities for flight tests to see if the technology would indeed work as anticipated in lunar gravity–and if not, to determine if the system’s sensors would detect the failure.

The payload first underwent parabolic flight testing in 2014. In November 2015 another round of parabolic flight tests was performed to evaluate the flight performance of its microfluidics systems under lunar gravity as well as a camera image capture and system performance evaluation.

The test flights increased the habitat’s technology readiness level (TRL) to 6, and it is now flight qualified for microgravity, low gravity, and 1 g ground and spaceflight applications.

Big Idea: The engineering design process is a comprehensive, valuable tool that can be used to provide solutions to complex challenges, on Earth and beyond.

Plant growth will be an important part of space exploration in the future as NASA plans for long-duration missions to the moon. NASA scientists anticipate that astronauts may be able to grow plants on the moon, and the plants could be used to supplement meals.

In anticipation of the need for research into lunar plant growth, NASA and the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, or ITEEA, present the NASA Engineering Design Challenge. Students design, build and evaluate lunar plant growth chambers – while engaging in research- and standards-based learning experiences. Students participate in the engineering design process and learn how to conduct a scientific experiment.