How astronauts could farm on the moon with lunar soil nutrients

an illustration of building on the surface of the moon, inside of which are farms growing plants
A new ESA Discovery project led by Norway’s Solsys Mining is looking into the treatment of lunar soil to create fertilizer for growing plants. (Image credit: Solsys Mining)

A new technique for processing lunar soil may help foster plant growth on the moon in hopes for sustaining more long-term lunar missions. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) and Norwegian lunar agriculture company Solsys Mining have studied ways to treat lunar soil, or regolith, to create fertilizer for growing plants. Previous experiments using lunar samples returned to Earth show plants can grow in lunar soil. However, lunar regolith lacks certain amounts of nitrogen compounds and becomes tightly compact when wet, which makes it challenging for the plants to take root and flourish. 

By leveraging hydroponic farming techniques, researchers have devised a way to grow plants in nutrient-rich water instead of soil by extracting essential minerals from the regolith, according to a statement from the ESA. 

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"This work is essential for future long-term lunar exploration," Malgorzata Holynska, ESA materials and processes engineer, said in the statement. "Achieving a sustainable presence on the moon will involve using local resources and gaining access to nutrients present in lunar regolith with the potential to help cultivate plants. The current study represents a proof of principle using available lunar regolith simulants, opening the way to more detailed research in future."

Hydroponic farming involves feeding plant roots directly with nutrient-rich water, without the need for soil. With the help of Norway's Geotechnical Institute and the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Space, the researchers developed a method for separating the beneficial mineral nutrients in regolith from the bad. 

In theory, the regolith would be passed through a sorter to extract and process valuable mineral nutrients, which would then be dissolved in water and fed into a hydroponic greenhouse where plants grow vertically on the moon's surface

The Solsys Mining team has already had success growing beans using simulated lunar highland regolith as a nutrient source, which proves hopeful for maintaining a long-term human presence on the moon, according to the statement. 

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13. 

  • Atlan0001
    It would be far better to construct and have Stanford Torus-type city-states and custom ring-gravity farming facilitation in L-point orbits than to do anything but have science stations, and mining stations, on the Moon. A big, big, expansive network-quality picture, all told, versus a small, far more entropically orientated and useless to Earth and Mankind, picture. The picture reminds me of 1960s type room and building, and street block, size mainframe computers inaccessible in any way at all to the many, versus 2020s size vast local and wide networks of Personal Colonies, er, Personal Computers so cheap and plentiful that the majority of mankind now has access to them.