Engineering firm Paragon Space Development plans to build a greenhouse to fly to the moon. It is set to travel on a lunar lander designed by Odyssey Moon, a competitor for the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million contest to send an unmanned lunar rover to the moon.
The greenhouse will be used to incubate fast-growing mustard seeds on the lunar surface, in the hopes of producing flowering plants and an iconic image that could be as thrilling as the Apollo images of Earth-rise over the lunar surface.
“We want there to be a great inspirational picture,” says Paragon CEO Taber MacCallum, who was one of the inhabitants of Biosphere 2, a greenhouse-like enclosure that housed eight inhabitants for two years in the early 1990s.
A photograph of flowers on the moon is expected to stir up enthusiasm for spaceflight, but the team also hopes the greenhouse will be the first step in sustainable development of the lunar surface.
“We’re sending the mustard first and hot dogs need to follow,” jokes Odyssey Moon founder Bob Richards. “Hopefully these will be the precursors to the greenhouses you would need to live on the moon.”
Building a greenhouse that can grow plants on the moon and be transparent enough to produce dramatic photographs will not be easy. “We have a very tricky requirement set,” says Paragon co-founder Jane Poynter.
The prototype unveiled on Friday is a metal-reinforced glass dome that is some 9 centimetres in diameter and 30 centimetres high, enough space to grow roughly six plants.
But the enclosure will need to be modified to protect plants from the vagaries of space radiation and extremes in temperature on the lunar surface, which can range from a frigid -170 °C to just above 100 °C.
To avoid the cold of the lunar night, which lasts for 14 Earth days, the team decided to send up a fast-growing member of the mustard family. The mustard plant can grow from seed to flower over the course of a single lunar day, or two Earth weeks.
But a number of details still need to be worked out. It is not clear how the seeds themselves will be planted. Because ordinary soil is easily jostled, the team is considering using a stickier substrate, like seaweed-derived agar, to grow the plants.
A time to plant
Timing is also key. If the seeds are embedded in the agar on the launch pad, they will already be well on the way to flowering by the time they reach the lunar surface, MacCallum says. So the team may have to devise a way to hydrate the seeds after the lander has touched down on the moon.
The launch date for the greenhouse has not yet been set. To win the Lunar X Prize, Odyssey Moon must be the first team to landed a robotic probe on the moon, drive a rover 500 metres, and send back pictures by 2014.
Odyssey Moon aims to launch its lander and rover by the end of 2011 to win the $20 million first prize, which will be reduced to $15 million in 2013.
But the team’s timeline may slip, Richards says. “We’re not in a race. We’re trying to come up with a viable commercial enterprise so we can start to populate the moon with more and more missions,” he told New Scientist. New Scientist