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Moon Turnips? NASA Takes Gardening to New Heights

The hyper-local food trend is really big right now. And apparently, NASA wants to make sure astronauts don't miss out. The agency recently announced plans to grow cress, turnips and basil on the moon.

And to protect the plants from the harsh cosmic radiation and the moon's lack of atmosphere, NASA researchers will be sending them off inside a seriously high-tech terrarium.

This could be good news for future space explorers: NASA's Mars simulation has already proved that people can only deal with so much freeze-dried food. But while astronauts will probably appreciate the fresh veg, NASA says the real goal of this experiment is to see if humans could one day live — and farm — on the moon.

"This will be the very first life science experiment performed in deep space," says plant scientist Bob Bowman, one of the researchers behind the project. "Our goal is to show that the living organism can thrive in what really is a hostile environment," he tells The Salt.

But growing plants on the moon won't be easy. The moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth — and the plants that NASA sends up there will have to deal with that, as well as facing extreme temperatures and harsh radiation.

"The moon's a weird place," Bowman says. "On the side that's facing the sun, the surface temperature is about 150 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other side, it's negative 150 degrees."

The plant habitat that Bowman and his colleagues have designed contains seeds, as well as a nutrient-rich paper and enough air and water for the seeds to germinate and grow. The canister also has features that regulate light and temperature, and cameras that the researchers will use to track the plants' progress over five to 10 days.

The entire thing is about the size of a coffee canister, and it weights only one kilogram. It'll be hitching a ride on the Moon Express lander, a commercial spacecraft enrolled in the Google Lunar X Prize that's set to launch sometime in 2015.

Till then, the researchers will be putting the canister through rigorous testing. They also hope to get school kids across America involved, by encouraging them to build their own canisters.

Bowman says this is just the first step. "Someday," he says, "What we learn from this and the follow-up experiments will enable us to live in deep space."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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