WORTHINGTON — At 238,900 miles away and covered with rocks and dust, the Moon isn’t humanity’s most likely garden, but one local instructor and her students are joining an international effort to change all that.
Heidi Tarus, a biology and natural science instructor at Minnesota West, is seeking students for her Plant the Moon Challenge team, in which students will design and carry out an experiment using lunar-like soil to grow food crops.
“One of the things that they want us to measure is pH. From there, it’s pretty open to whatever experiment you want to do with this soil,” Tarus said. “They really want you to grow food.”
The Plant the Moon Challenge is a program of the Institute of Competition Sciences in collaboration with the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute.
NASA’s Artemis program, which has been rescheduled to launch later this month after two abortive launch attempts, is the newest U.S. initiative to return to the Moon, though it also includes preparation for an eventual manned mission to Mars. That will present new challenges, including feeding a crew in an environment with few resources.
“This begs us to ask the question, can you plant the Moon?” asks the Plant the Moon Challenge website. “Can you grow crops in lunar regolith, a fine grained dusty covering of rocks and minerals spread across the surface of the moon?”
And what modifications might be needed in order to make that lunar soil yield fruit?
This view of the north polar region of the Moon was obtained by NASA’s Galileo camera during the spacecraft flyby of the Earth-Moon system on Dec. 7 and 8, 1992.
With the help of the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, Tarus applied for a single $400 Plant the Moon kit, which will be enough synthetic “lunar” soil for 4 to 10 pots.
“I just hope I get students,” she said.
The activity represents an opportunity for students to gain some research experience, which can be trickier at a community college than at a university. Though there’s no credit, the Minnesota West students will get practice designing and implementing their own experiments — a critical skill for students hoping for a career in the sciences.
One of the major challenges of gardening on the Moon is that transportation space for bringing soil additives, fertilizers and organic components is extremely limited, and that’s reflected in the exercise. Students will be able to try growing any kind of plant, but the Plant the Moon Challenge asks them to limit the materials that need to be brought there. There are other options too, such as changing the amount of water, the amount of sunlight, the growth setup or the type of fertilizer.
“There’s a lot of factors you can look at in terms of plant growth,” Tarus said.
There is no fee to participate, and Minnesota West will pay for project expenses through the biology department’s budget.
So far, Tarus said, she has two students participating, but she hopes to get 10 or 15 Minnesota West students from any of the school’s campuses or learning centers, provided they can get to Worthington to help with data collection during the growing period. That could also include Worthington High School students, too, provided they’re participating in the PSEO program and taking classes at the college, she added.
After the 10 week growing period, from Sept. 26 to Nov. 18, the team will submit its project reports and showcase its work at a virtual symposium, with awards given out to the best experiments.
The real prize, though, is the experience, which will help students learn critical thinking skills, communication and collaboration, all essential skills in modern scientific fields.
“I’m trying to get my students to see themselves as scientists,” Tarus said, pointing out that the image of a scientist working alone in his lab making solo breakthroughs is a stereotype that doesn’t reflect how research is done anymore. “I’m trying to break down those stereotypes.”
Anyone interested in the project should RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by Sept. 16. For more information, visit