Lunar Regolith Student Project

A team of local students have been selected as finalists to send a prototype to the moon on the Google X Prize moonshot. Specifically, The Regolith Revolution project is preparing to be on the Team Indus lander.

The challenge posed was

Imagine, design, and build a project to catalyze the evolution of humankind as a sustainable multi-planetary species.

OK, that’s a preposterously broad challenge, not least because we have no way to actually travel between planets. But that shouldn’t stop bright kids from trying to build something interesting.

Their answer is “Create a prototype that test different fertilizer abilities to turn lunar regolith fertile.”  I.e., explore how to grow Earth plants on the moon.

The Apollo program returned samples of rocks and soil (regolith) from the moon, which is the only samples ever returned from another planet. Earth-bound studies of the soil show that regolith is (not surprisingly) sterile, but is a perfectly good growing medium, once you add water, air, and fertilizer. (There is plenty of sunlight available, at least at the right place and time.)

Combining what they are learning in Agricultural Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, with contributions from others and the first rate facilities of the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, they have built a robot lab to conduct experiments on the surface of the moon.

The team describes the product as:

The device is about the size of a beverage can and has an Archimedes screw that drills into the ground, lifts lunar soil (also called regolith) into the shell, and drops it into rotating cups. When the screw retracts, the hole closes and the device pressurizes and heats up. Tubes deposit seeds, water and fertilizer into the cups.

This is only a first step toward “the evolution of humankind as a sustainable multi-planetary species” (and it is certainly not a “galactic greenhouse” as the University press release gushed), but growing plants is a very important thing to understand, no?

I’m not a big fan of the current race to colonize the solar system, mostly because there is so much hype per unit of talk. Frankly, I don’t know if it will ever make sense to try to live on the Moon or Mars, except as visitors. (Orbital habitats, maybe.)

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn more about the moon.

It is also great to see this attempt to do in situ experiments. Regardless of the heroic achievements of my generation, studies of regolith on Earth are no substitute for studies on the moon.

How will this process actually work out in microgravity, lunar sunlight, and the real possibility of dust getting in the moving parts and electronics?  How will the plants fare in a really, really sterile environment–no symbiotic microbes, fungus, insects, or anything?  We shall have to see.

I say, “bravo!”, let’s shoot it off to the moon.

Nice work, all!


  1. Leanne Lucas. Engineering students design galactic greenhouse. 2017, http://engineering.illinois.edu/news/article/21407.
  2. Regolith Revolution. Regolith Revolution. 2017, https://regolithrevolution.com/.
  3. Team Indus, Team Indus, 2017.

 

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