AstroPlant: Artemis Moon Trees

We’ve talked before about the Moon Tree experiment that was kicked off in 1971, during the Apollo 14 mission. In collaboration with his former employer, the US Forest Service, astronaut Stuart Roosa brought about 500 tree seeds into space to orbit the moon. Back on Earth after their nine-day excursion, the seeds were germinated and planted around the world, mainly in the USA.

This wasn’t an especially formal experiment. NASA didn’t keep track of the trees after they were planted; they began keeping a record of the trees in the 1990s, but the location of many Moon Trees is still unknown.

However, the simple existence of the trees is enough to capture the imagination. The Moon Trees stand as living monuments to humanity’s early efforts to reach beyond our planet.

With the launch of Artemis I, we may be seeing a new generation of Moon Trees before long. This post looks at the tree seeds aboard Artemis I, and at some of the mission’s other experiments with living things.

Tree seeds on Artemis I

Once again, NASA and the US Forest Service have collaborated to take a collection of tree seeds into orbit around the moon.

The tree seeds aboard Artemis I belong to five different species. Four of them are also species that Stuart Roosa carried on Apollo 14: sycamore, Douglas fir, loblolly pine and American sweetgum. The fifth tree species on Artemis I is giant redwood, replacing the coast redwood from Apollo 14, as giant redwood can be planted in a broader range of places.

The seeds have already travelled further from Earth than any human has ever been. Once they’ve returned from their spaceflight, they’ll be grown into seedlings and planted across the US.

This new Moon Tree generation is an opportunity to follow the growth of seeds that have been into space, but it also has symbolic significance. There’s something awe-inspiring about knowing our planet plays host to living beings that have been to space. Giant redwood can live for over 3,000 years, so some of these trees may stand as a monument to Artemis I for a very long time.

Other Artemis I biology experiments

Artemis I has the primary purpose of making sure we’re ready to send people back to the moon; take a look at our article about the mannequins aboard Artemis I and how they’re helping. However, it also provides a great opportunity to conduct various space-based experiments.

One of these experiments involves Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress. Arabidopsis is a popular plant for scientific experiments, and we’ve talked about it before in our article on growing plants on the moon.

Because previous experiments have found that exposure to space can reduce the nutrients held by seeds, the Artemis I Arabidopsis experiment (‘Life Beyond Earth: Effect of Space Flight on Seeds with Improved Nutritional Value’) aims to learn whether seeds with increased nutrient reserves will cope better with spaceflight and ultimately grow into healthier, more nutritious seedlings. Like the AstroPlant project, this could help to inform future decisions about what plants to grow in space.

There are a number of other living things being carried aboard Artemis I for scientific studies: fungi, algae and yeast. These experiments go beyond our AstroPlant articles’ usual scope of looking specifically at plants in space, but they’re all interesting, so we thought we’d mention them as well!

  • Algae is of great interest to spacefarers because it can produce hydrogen, which can be used in rocket fuel. The ‘Fuel to Mars’ experiment aboard Artemis I aims to identify algae strains that survive well in space and could be used to generate fuel for space travel. Being able to produce fuel in space, rather than being limited to the amount of fuel loaded onto a vessel on Earth, could make a big difference to how ambitious space missions can be.
  • The ‘Deep Space Radiation Genomics’ experiment has taken millions of yeast cells into space aboard Artemis I. It’s hoped that this experiment can tell us more about how radiation and microgravity affect living cells in general, and that we might learn lessons that are applicable to human health. The Artemis I launch also deployed a small satellite called BioSentinel, with the goal of studying the effects of radiation on yeast over a longer period of time.
  • Investigating the Roles of Melanin and DNA Repair on Adaptation and Survivability of Fungi in Deep Space’ is an experiment name that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. The goal is to study different strains of the fungus Aspergillus niger after their journey around the moon and, hopefully, to identify qualities that make the fungus better able to adapt to spaceflight. According to NASA, the cells of Aspergillus niger deal with DNA damage in a way similar to animal cells, so this experiment could also inform ways to protect astronauts from space radiation in the future.

If you’re a podcast fan and you’d like to know more about Artemis I’s relevance to astrobotany, you might enjoy the Gardeners of the Galaxy episode ‘The Space Gardener’s Guide to Artemis I’. NASA’s podcast Houston, We Have a Podcast also includes an episode about an experiment we previously discussed on our AstroPlant page: growing plants in soil samples from the moon. The episode in question is ‘Moon Farming’, episode 258.

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For more about growing plants in space, return to our AstroPlant page.

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