An astronaut’s gotta eat, right? Especially if they are on a long-duration mission to places like the Moon. Scientists have been looking into how the lunar regolith could possibly support growing food for humans, as growing plants for food and oxygen will be critical for future long-term lunar missions.
One company has been diligently researching this concept and they say there’s good news.
By analyzing lunar samples returned by the Apollo astronauts and China’s Chang’e 5 mission, scientists at Solsys Mining in Norway says that many valuable plant nutrients already exist in the lunar regolith. The company says they are now developing systems for extracting these nutrients for use in hydroponic agriculture.
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Their concept is to use those in-situ nutrients to create fertilizer for aquacultural farming. Solsys has also developed 3d-printed hydroponic growth systems.
“This work is essential for future long-term lunar exploration,” said ESA materials and processes engineer Malgorzata Holynska, who has been working with various industries on promising new ideas in space research. “Achieving a sustainable presence on the Moon will involve using local resources and gaining access to nutrients present in lunar regolith with the potential to help cultivate plants. The current study represents a proof of principle using available lunar regolith simulants, opening the way to more detailed research in future.”
Hydroponics appears to be the best and maybe only option for growing food on the Moon. Solsys says their research has revealed that lunar soil compacts in the presence of water, which creates problems for plant germination and root growth.
Hydroponics, the technique of growing plants using a water-based nutrient solution rather than soil, therefore offers a practical alternative for lunar farming. Extracting nutrients from the regolith allows for in-situ resource utilization, meaning that fertilizer wouldn’t have to be hauled to the Moon, which would be expensive.
In their research, the Solsys Mining team having already cultivated beans by extracting nutrients from a simulated lunar highland regolith.
“We are developing systems for beneficiation of raw materials to enable agriculture, construction and production in space,” says the company on their website. “Systems in space need to be gravity independent, dry, highly energy efficient, compact, and use little to no water.”
Their concept for the whole system, shown in this artist rendition, includes a mechanical sorting area for the regolith, on the left, which would then pass through to the central module for more advanced processing, such as chemical leaching. Finally extracted nutrients would be dissolved in water to be pumped to the hydroponic garden, shown on the right.
While the hydroponic bays have been developed, the company is working on the technologies needed for screening, sorting and extracting the nutrients. Solsys Mining’s founders have experience from both the terrestrial mining sector and the space industry.
All of these systems would need to be able to operate in the Moon’s challenging environment, which includes reduced gravity, no atmosphere, and extremes in radiation and temperatures. Working with the lunar regolith itself poses challenges as it is very abrasive and can cause a range of problems for both astronauts and equipment. Since its abrasive nature can damage machines, mechanical durability would need to be built into the system.
This concept has received support from ESA’s Open Space Innovation Platform, which looks for promising new ideas for space research.