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Growing Plants on Moon Becomes Feasible

Credits: ©2010 Odyssey

Groundbreaking advancements in the realm of space engineering may soon see the moon sown with the first gardens to grow on the lunar surface. As part of the Google Lunar X Prize, Paragon Space Development Corporation has recently teamed with Odyssey Moon to develop a pressurized mini greenhouse to deploy on the surface of the moon, grow a plant from seed, and hopefully see it flower and seed itself. It’s a complicated endeavor, but it marks a critical stage of development for extending life beyond the confines of our planet.

In order to successfully grow a plant on the moon, Paragon has developed a very specialized greenhouse that can safely contain a plant and provide it with all elements it needs to survive. The greenhouse will need to protect the plant from the sun’s intense rays while providing it with enough water, balanced soil, and carbon dioxide while removing its waste oxygen. They are basically creating a space suit for the plant.


Lunar Greenhouse with Moon

For this trial, Paragon has chosen a species within Brassica (the mustard family), due to their quick growth and the abundance of knowledge about the plant. A typical Brassica needs 14 days of light in order to grow, flower and then set seed. A lunar day is 14 Earth days long, so if the landing is timed perfectly, it will allow just enough time for the plant to grow to maturity and possibly re-seed. That is if everything goes as planned on the Lunar Oasis Lander, which Paragon and Odyssey Moon are developing.

Growing a plant in a controlled environment on the moon will be a groundbreaking development, because this is a crucial step to colonizing life outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Whatever you think about expanding beyond our own limits, the technology to be able to sustain life in such harsh conditions is pretty incredible – it would be amazing to see the accelerated footage of a plant growing in space.

The plant growth payload is just one aspect of the Lunar Oasis Lander being developed for the Google Lunar X Prize. The competition will award $30 million to the first private company to land a craft on the moon by 2012. As part of the requirements, the craft must safely land, send live video feed back to Earth, travel at least 500 meters across the surface, send more video and carry a payload. Paragon is specifically responsible for the plant payload as well as the lander design and thermal controls systems. Interestingly enough, the CEO of Paragon, Taber MacCallum, and his wife Jane Poytner are experts in closed biological systems – they were two of the eight people who spent two years inside of Biosphere 2 in Arizona.

Following is from the Odyssey Website:

Tucson, AZ –
The first Moon flower will become a reality when private lunar expedition partners Odyssey Moon and Paragon Space Development Corporation deliver a biological greenhouse to the lunar surface.

Google Lunar X PRIZE contender Odyssey Moon Ltd. will announce its partnership with Paragon at a media conference held on March 27, 2009 at the Tucson-based firm, a manufacturer of key components for NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that will replace the Space Shuttle and take Astronauts to the Moon and eventually Mars. The lunar plant will be another space biology first for Paragon, having bred the first animals through complete life cycles in space, and grown the first aquatic plant in space.

“People of all ages will get excited about the idea of growing a plant on the Moon,” said Jane Poynter, President and founder of Paragon and an expert on environmental sustainability. “Imagine a bright flower on a plant in a crystal clear growth chamber on the surface of the Moon, with the full Earth rising above the Moonscape behind it; these are the ideas that got me interested in space.”

Jane Poynter and husband Taber MacCallum, Paragon CEO, are well known experts in the closed biological systems communities, and were themselves experimental subjects within a sealed ecosystem as resident scientists in the famous Biosphere 2 project of the early 90’s. Spending two years living with six others in a 3.2 acre greenhouse type structure in Oracle, Arizona, the largest closed system ever built, they emerged as a couple with a newly created company.

Growing the first plant on another world has enormous symbolic importance as well as important scientific research value for creating self contained lunar outposts and eventual settlements. “Plants have been grown in essentially zero gravity and of course in Earth gravity, but never in fractions of gravity,” said Dr. Volker Kern, Paragon’s Director of NASA Human Spaceflight Programs who conducted plant growth experiments in space on the US Space Shuttle. “Scientifically it will be very interesting to understand the effects of the Moon and one sixth gravity on plant growth.”

NASA Ames planetary scientist Dr. Chris McKay will also be supporting the Lunar Oasis science team. "The first plant to grow from seed and complete its life cycle on another world will be a significant step in the expansion of life beyond the Earth. The sooner we do it the better," he said.

In addition to leading the design of biological payloads, Paragon’s responsibilities on the Odyssey Moon team include robotic lunar lander design support and the lander’s th ermal control system. Paragon CEO Taber MacCallum will also be joining the Odyssey Moon Board of Advisors.

“We are thrilled to have Paragon join the team with their expertise in thermal and biological systems,” said Odyssey Moon founder and CEO Dr. Robert (Bob) Richards. “I am incredibly inspired by our hope to grow the first plant on another world.”

U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Chairwoman of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, will participate in the press event and tour Paragon’s Orion and research facilities.

Writes Loretta Whitesides on the X-Prize blog in March 2009: When you are building the first ever lunar greenhouse, you have to make sure it is small, lightweight, strong and super space-age looking. Paragon has nailed all four.

Today we are unveiling a prototype design for a lunar greenhouse that can fly to the moon on our Google Lunar X PRIZE lander and grow a flower. In this case, an Arabidopsis flower. Arabidopsis is in the mustard family and is the lab standard for all plant geneticists. As such it is very well characterized and is an excellent choice to send to the moon to study how a plant responds to that unique environment. Although government space programs have grown plants in microgravity (orbiting around the Earth). No one has ever grown a plant in partial gravity- as you would find on the surface of the moon.

Lunar gravity is 1/6 Earth gravity. That means a person who weighs 180 lbs on Earth would only weigh 30 lbs on the moon. No one knows if the plants will grow taller, devote less resources to structurally reinforcing their stems, or change nothing at all.

About Odyssey Moon
Odyssey Moon Ventures LLC is a U.S. company with offices in Washington, DC and Cocoa Beach, Florida. The company intends to develop and commercialize innovative technologies to offer frequent, low cost and reliable access to the lunar surface for private and government customers. In addition to working with NASA on lander development, Odyssey Moon Ventures will be responsible for the U.S. launch operations and ground processing of spacecraft that will be used in future commercial spaceflights to the Moon.

Odyssey Moon Limited is a multi-national commercial lunar enterprise based in the Isle of Man that was first unveiled in December 2007 as the first official contender in the $30M Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. The company is an innovative partnership of aerospace, financial, science, education, legal and policy interests that have come together to offer unique commercial lunar business services and products for humanity’s permanent return to the Moon. Odyssey Moon’s prime contractor is MDA, an experienced company with substantial space heritage in providing robotics on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, and more recently for satellite servicing and planetary exploration. Odyssey Moon is dedicated to the long-term responsible development of the Moon for the benefit of all humanity.

About Paragon Space Development Corporation
Paragon Space Development Corporation joins the engineering disciplines of environmental control, life support, and thermal control to provide premier products and services for our world’s most challenging life support needs, such as human spaceflight and first responder personal protection. Founded in 1993, Paragon is a woman-owned small business headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, with additional offices in Houston, Denver and Washington, DC.


Lunar Oasis: Greenhouse on the Moon