Turnip seeds heading to the moon

Turnip

Turnip photo by Flickr user Nicholas Noyes [niznoz], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thanks to a recent piece at NPR’s The Salt, I learned that the humble turnip (or its seeds, anyway) will be rocketing to the moon as part of a planned NASA mission in 2015. Here’s how NASA describes it:

Can humans live and work on the moon? Not just visit for a few days but stay for decades? A first step in long term presence is to send plants. 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”.

As Maanvi Singh explains in the NPR post,

growing plants on the moon won’t be easy. The moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth — and the plants that NASA sends up there will have to deal with that, as well as facing extreme temperatures and harsh radiation….

The plant habitat that [mission scientist Bob] Bowman and his colleagues have designed contains seeds, as well as a nutrient-rich paper and enough air and water for the seeds to germinate and grow. The canister also has features that regulate light and temperature, and cameras that the researchers will use to track the plants’ progress over five to 10 days.

The entire thing is about the size of a coffee canister, and it weights only one kilogram.

How will it work? As Jon M. Chang details for ABC News,

When the garden lands on the moon, it will automatically trigger a small reservoir to squirt water on nutrient-rich filter paper. The dissolved nutrients will trickle down to the seeds, prompting the seeds to start growing.

A week or so obviously won’t yield full-grown “moon turnips,” but the scientists are dreaming big. As NASA outlines,

After LPX-0 demonstrates germination and initial growth in lunar gravity and radiation, we anticipate follow on experiments that expand the biological science. These include: 1) long term, over-lunar-night experiments, 2) multi-generation experiments, 3) Diverse plants.

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 (meiosis) can occur in a lunar environment. Survival to 180 days shows effects of radiation on dominant & recessive genetic traits. Afterwards, the experiment may run for months through multiple generations, increasing science return.

In other words, a lunar CSA is a long, long way off.

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