NASA just announced plans to grow plants on the moon in 2015 as the first step towards sustaining life on other planets. A group of scientists, contractors, students, and volunteers called the Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team are planning to build special coffee-can-sized containers that will be capable of protecting the plants in the harsh lunar climate, and beaming information about their growth back to Earth.

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The habitats will be packed with cameras, sensors, and other electronics to help scientists monitor the condition of the plants. Each habitat will have to be equipped to regulate its own temperature, water intake, and power supply. The cylinders will contain seeds for arabidopsis, basil, sunflowers, and turnips.

In order to establish a control group for the experiment, NASA is also sending identical habitats to schools and citizen scientists across the US. Not only will this provide valuable insights into the unique challenges of horticulture in space, it also allows children to gain hands-on experience participating in a major scientific study.

Unlike most of NASA’s experiments, this one is going to be fairly small-scale and relatively low-cost. The project coincides with the Google Lunar X Prize, a contest offering $20 million to help a private company to launch a robotic spacecraft that will land on the moon, travel across its surface, and transmit back two “Mooncasts” by the end of 2015. The winner will also likely carry NASA’s plant habitats with it, allowing the agency to shave the project’s costs to under $2 million. Even if the seeds don’t successfully germinate, the arrangement allows NASA to keep the risks associated with the experiment low.

If the project is successful, the research could help scientists develop new ways to grow crops on Earth. As the world’s climate changes and droughts and extreme temperatures begin to affect farms around the globe, that information could be key to helping feed the world’s poorest people.

Via Slashdot

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