It would seem that an ESA-linked team has shown that marigolds can grow in crushed rock very like the lunar surface, with no need for plant food. A team led by Natasha Kozyrovska and Iryna Zaetz from the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev planted marigolds in crushed anorthosite, a type of rock found on Earth which is very similar to much of the lunar surface. In neat anorthosite, the plants fared very badly. But adding different types of bacteria made them thrive; the bacteria appeared to draw elements from the rock that the plants needed, such as potassium.
Dr Foing, who presented the study at a recent European Geosciences Union meeting, said there was no reason in principle why the same idea could not bear fruit on the Moon itself. Tools could crush lunar rock and add bacteria and seeds. But, he added, scientists could look to go further, by selecting plants or bacteria that are especially well adapted to lunar conditions, or even by genetically engineering new strains.
There has been a revival of interest in Moon exploration in recent years. Europe's Smart 1 probe with its innovative ion engine ended its mission in 2006 with a deliberate crash onto the lunar surface. China's Chang'e 1 and Japan's Kaguya (or Selene) orbiters both began operations last year, while India's Chandrayaan 1 is due for launch within months. The US, meanwhile, is committed to putting human feet back on lunar soil by 2020.
ESA is not yet sure about further Moon missions; a decision on whether to proceed with a concept called Moon Next, which would probably deploy a roving vehicle in about 2015, will be taken later this year. Even if that gets the go-ahead, some ESA officials suggested that planting marigolds (or tulips or cabbages) would be unlikely to be part of the strategy.