In filmmaker Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine,” Michelle Yeoh plays a future botanist who travels aboard a space station tending plants. Now, this futuristic concept may become a reality. reports that scientists are exploring how to extract mineral nutrients from moon dirt to use in future space farms. During the Apollo-era of space travel, astronauts brought back moon dirt to test on plants. Experts hope to use more recent technologies to determine the validity of the space dust theory.

Apollo-era research looked at the lunar regolith that resides on top of the moon. This is a mixture of space dust, soil, broken rock and more. Scientists performed various experiments with the precious samples but were unable to go as far as they wanted in their research because of technological limitations. Robert Ferl is a geneticist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. As he told, "In spite of the fact that we absolutely admire the innovative science done in the Apollo era, the question of whether a plant could grow if you plop a seed in lunar regolith hasn't been answered.”

If experts are able to determine how plants can grow in lunar soil, the research could be used to help sustain life in space. But the concept isn’t just about creating greenhouses in the sky. Anna-Lisa Paul, Ferl’s colleague at the University of Florida, says that scientists may find new plant nutrients.

When the Apollo spacewalkers brought back lunar samples, scientists analyzed them to see how Earth’s plants would be affected by them. They found that lunar samples did not contain any threat to our biosphere. In fact, they found that the plants were able to derive some nutrition from the moon soil. However, the moon dirt was found to lack all the nutritional elements needed for plant growth. Further, Apollo-era scientists were not able to account for how bacteria affected plants in lunar soil.

The samples brought back from the Apollo missions were small, but new technologies can work around that issue. reports that just one gram of lunar regolith could help plants like cabbage and radishes grow, as scientists have developed a way to extract important minerals from moon dirt. As Paul tells, "You have the colonization of the plant roots by a host of organisms that break down and transport materials. These things facilitate the harvesting of molecules from the substrate in which the plant is growing."

Ultimately, Paul and others say their research could enable humanity to sustain life on Mars, as their techniques could lighten the resource load for space travelers. If astronauts were able to grow provisions on other planets, they wouldn't have to take as much food with them.

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Moon dirt might sustain plant life in space
Scientists explore how moon dirt could feed plants in future space station greenhouses.