The European Space Agency has begun a 12-month study of lunar agriculture.

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The feasibility of farming on the moon will be assessed through a new initiative that the European Space Agency (ESA) announced on Wednesday. For hydroponic agriculture, the “Enabling lunar in-situ agriculture by generating fertilizer from beneficiated regolith” project would investigate various methods of mineral extraction from lunar soil.

Representação artística de um sistema Solsys que classifica mecanicamente o regolito antes de dissolver os nutrientes na água. (Imagem: Solsys/ESA)

There has been a lot of talk recently about establishing lunar colonies, especially thanks to Elon Musk, who wants to colonize the moon by 2030. But the notion of residing on the space rock raises a crucial question: where will the residents get their food? ? ESA is developing sustainable hydroponic farming techniques in space in collaboration with two European research institutes and space resource processing company Solsys Mining with the aim of creating a long-term presence on the moon.

Regolith, the topsoil on the moon, is rich in nutrients, but it doesn’t make a good substrate for growing food. Regolith is hydrophobic and compact in the presence of water, making it difficult for seedlings to build strong root systems. It also lacks the nitrogen molecules needed for sustained plant growth. (This is probably why last year’s regolith growth tests at the University of Florida were underwhelming.)

O solo da lua manteve a forma da pegada do piloto do Módulo Lunar da Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, levando a esta foto icônica. (Imagem: NASA/Buzz Aldrin)
The moon’s soil held the shape of the footprint of Apollo 11 Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin, leading to this iconic photo. (Image: NASA/Buzz Aldrin)

With hydroponics, soil is not necessary. Hydroponics allows plants to take root directly in nutrient-rich water, rather than waiting for them to do so in regolith or other substrates. However, Solsys and the ESA will need to develop a method that harvests nutrients from the regolith to ensure that the water used for lunar hydroponics is rich in nutrients.

Solsys is now experimenting with various mechanical, chemical and biological methods to cultivate these nutrients. The team will collaborate with the Geotechnical Institute of Norway and the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Space to develop a system that concentrates beneficial nutrients while removing unwanted elements after determining an efficient mechanism.

“This work is essential for future long-term lunar exploration,” said ESA Materials and Process Engineer Malgorzata Holynska. “Achieving a sustainable presence on the Moon will involve using local resources and accessing nutrients present in the lunar regolith that have the potential to help grow plants.”

The ESA project started in December 2022 and will end at the end of this calendar year. The organization did not specify which varieties of specific products it would like to plant on the moon. In the course of investigation, it is likely that some species will prove to be suitable for lunar agriculture; but by then, Solsys apparently had experience hydroponic growing tomatoes, beans, and peppers here on Earth.

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