April 15, 2009

Private Firm Plans To Plant Flowers On The Moon

A US space engineering and technology development firm has developed a new device that may one day offer astronauts the ability to grow fresh vegetables in space.

Tuscon, Arizona-based Paragon Space Development Corporation has designed a miniature sealed greenhouse that will be the first step toward growing flowers, and eventually vegetables, on the Moon.

Paragon hopes its so-called "Lunar Oasis" will get the chance to prove its capabilities with lunar lander Odyssey Moon, which is currently under development with a goal of reaching the Moon by 2014 in hopes of winning a piece of the $30 million being offered by Google's Lunar X Prize.

The X Prize is an international competition that challenges participants to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the Earth. The teams vying for the X Prize must be 90 percent privately funded.

Paragon's "Lunar Oasis" will travel to the moon with seeds of Brassica, which is used in the production of cooking oil and livestock feed.

"Colonizing the Moon or Mars seems so far away, but it is important that we do this research now," Paragon president Jane Poynter told AFP.

"It takes a long time to get a lot of research, and to get integrated, reliable efficient systems" before colonists move in, she said.

"I was pleased to see this (project) put together by Paragon," said Gene A. Giacomelli, a professor at the University of Arizona Department of Plant Sciences.

"NASA has pulled back on funding for bio-regenerative life support systems, and most of the centers in the US that had been doing that research had stopped."

Giacomelli and students at the university's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) are working on their own as-yet-unfunded lunar greenhouse, according to AFP.

"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," he said.

In addition to developing the mini greenhouses for the moon mission, Paragon will be conducting robotic lunar lander design support and working with the lander's thermal control system.

"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."

Poynter said the concept of growing plants on the moon would inspire people of all ages.

"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," she said.


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