Aiming to establish a long-term presence on the moon, the European Space Agency (ESA) is working on a new project that will help determine the feasibility of growing crops on the lunar surface. Led by Norwegian company Solsys Mining, the project will attempt to develop a method for converting lunar soil into fertilizer for use in hydroponics.
The study builds on previous research on lunar soil samples. While lunar soil, also known as regolith, is rich in most of the nutrients necessary for plant growth, it compacts in the presence of water, making it difficult for seeds to form healthy root systems.
Hydroponics circumvents this challenge as it allows roots to be cultivated directly in nutrient-rich water instead of soil. But to ensure the water used in the hydroponic system is nutritious, ESA and Solsys Mining need to develop a method that extracts nutrients from regolith, concentrates the valuable elements before use, and removes the unwanted ones.
This would require three steps as shown below. First, regolith would be pulled through a mechanical sorting area. Then nutrients would be extracted by a processing plant before being dissolved in water and pumped into a greenhouse for hydroponics.
Artist’s rendering of what the installation wants on the moon. From left to right: the mechanical sorting area, the processing plant and the hydroponic greenhouse. Photo credit: ESA
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The Solsys Mining team is optimistic, having previously grown beans using simulated Lunar Highlands regolith as a nutrient source.
“This work is crucial for future long-term exploration of the moon,” said Malgorzata Holynska, materials and processes engineer at ESA. “To achieve a sustainable presence on the moon requires the use of local resources and access to nutrients present in the lunar regolith that have the potential to cultivate plants. The current study represents a proof of principle using available lunar regolith simulants and paves the way for more detailed research in the future.”
To carry out this study, ESA and Solsys Mining have partnered with the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI) and the Center for Interdisciplinary Space Research (CIRiS). The project was launched in December 2022 and is expected to run for a full year. It is funded by the Discovery arm of ESA’s Basic Activities.