Planting an idea

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am

For man, living on the moon remains a distant dream. Cracked and barren, the celestial wasteland bathed in wan light embodies desolation, a concept reinforced by the word 'moonscape'. It seems highly unsuited to life of any kind.

Still, the moon might just serve as a platform for the future field of 'space agriculture'. Moves are afoot to turn the old orb from a hard rock into a functioning horticultural nursery of some kind.

American aerospace engineering firm Paragon Development has created the imaginatively named Lunar Oasis (right) - a 46cm tall, pressurised portable greenhouse that is to be installed on the moon's surface within the next few years. The experimental greenhouse, which resembles a closed test tube and has a triangular aluminium base, will be part of the payload on a private lunar expedition to be undertaken by Paragon with Isle of Man-based partner Odyssey Moon in 2012.

The partnership is the first official contender in the US$30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition. Launched in 2007, the contest is seeking a privately funded team to send a lunar lander to the moon and have it travel across its surface, broadcasting images and data back to Earth.

The little greenhouse in the sky is supposed to shield plants from the sun's rays while affording all key elements for growth: soil, water and oxygen. But growing a plant on the moon's fiercely hostile surface will not suit just any vegetation. So the group behind Lunar Oasis picked flowers and vegetables from the brassica family as flora's answer to Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong. Brassicas require just a fortnight or so of light to grow and flourish before going to seed. The same genus includes mustard, cauliflower, cabbage and turnip.

Doubters and detractors might suggest that such a mission is bound to fail but one reason for giving the lunar greenhouse a go is that the United States space agency Nasa plans to send man back to the moon in 2020 and to Mars in 2030.

Nasa Ames Research Centre scientist Chris McKay, who will be supporting the Lunar Oasis science team, says: 'The first plant to grow from seed and complete its life cycle on another world will be a significant step in the expansion of life beyond Earth. The sooner we do it the better.'

If plants can be grown in space, then astronauts could be freed from subsisting purely on pasta and pills. With a working lunar greenhouse, fresh vegetables could enter the equation.

US-based independent inventor and innovation consultant Michael Plishka describes Lunar Oasis as a 'very cool' low-risk, rich-rewards project. Science may be a long way away from setting up any kind of moon hotel but the Lunar Oasis would serve as a feasibility study so that technicians can iron out the kinks in the system, says Plishka.

He says that designing hi-tech greenhouses demands little innovation. Similar cultivation facilities are present in research stations scattered across Antarctica, where moon-like environmental conditions exist. Those efforts are already providing enough culinary greenery to provide two fresh salads a day to scientists posted in the Earth's southernmost continent.

Assuming Lunar Oasis comes to fruition, it could well give new meaning to the word 'moonflower'.