Thursday, March 26, 2009

Growing flowers on the moon

Someday. Perhaps someday soon.

Alan Boyle covers it.

A company that has built mini-biospheres for orbiting space stations says it's ready for the next giant leap: growing flowers on the moon.

"It's all very aggressive," Taber MacCallum, chief executive officer of Arizona-based Paragon Space Development Corp., said of his company's plan to send a miniature greenhouse to the lunar surface. "But it isn't fun if it isn't aggressive."

Paragon's "Lunar Oasis" would piggyback on a lunar lander currently being developed by Odyssey Moon to vie for a share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. Details of the partnership are to be publicized Friday during a news conference at Paragon's headquarters in Tucson, Ariz.

To win the prize, Odyssey Moon would have to get its lander/rover craft on the moon's surface by the end of 2014. Paragon is working with Odyssey Moon on the lander design and its thermal control system as well as the mini-greenhouse.


The current prototype for the greenhouse is a 15-inch-high (37.5-centimeter-high) reinforced glass cylinder that's about 7 inches (18 centimeters) wide on the bottom. Seeds for a rapid-cycle type of Brassica plant - basically, mustard seeds - would be planted in Earth soil within the container.

"It's one of those 'lab-rat' plants that scientists use a lot and know very well," MacCallum explained.

The petite plants have been bred on Earth to develop yellow flowers 14 days after planting - which happens to be how long a lunar day lasts. "We're hoping to at least go to flower and set seed in the course of one lunar day," MacCallum said.

Without the mediating influence of an atmosphere, lunar surface temperatures can swing widely between day and night, from 225 degrees Fahrenheit (107 degrees Celsius) during the day to colder than 240 degrees below zero F (-153 degrees C) at night. "My guess is the plant is going to get so cold that it dies during the night," MacCallum said.

But wouldn't it be cool if the plant developed mustard seeds that started a whole new cycle of growth on the moon? If that happened, "we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves," MacCallum said.

Really, really cool. To borrow a phrase, if we can make it happen there, we can make it happen anywhere.

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