NASA Scientist Over the Moon With Homegrown Radish Research


How two video meetings, two online purchases, and a kitchen counter led to what could be “one small step” for future astronauts to grow food on the Moon.


While others have perfected sourdough starter or whipped up chocolate chip cookies during the pandemic, NASA scientist Max Coleman has been toiling in his kitchen over containers of baby radishes – all in the name of science.

Why radishes?

“They have been used before in space, and they germinate very, very fast,” Coleman says.

Previously, other researchers had sent radishes to the International Space Station, and now, Coleman and his colleagues hope to help the quest for astronauts to eventually grow their own food on the lunar surface.

Coleman’s makeshift kitchen “lab.” Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Larger view

The team of 13 is trying to simulate – physically and chemically – lunar surface soil, or regolith, here on Earth, including such details as how quickly water is absorbed between lunar soil grains, how big the particles are, and what proportions of minerals are ideal.

Video Meetings Plant the Seed

Coleman and team spent over a year doing their research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and were about to start hands-on tests of sensors that might eventually be used on the Moon. Mandatory telework in response to the coronavirus interrupted those plans.

Then, one day in April during a video team meeting from home, an idea sprouted in Coleman’s head for a homemade radish lab. They were discussing how they could, hypothetically, try growing some radishes with no nutrients and some with a small amount of nutrients.

“Let’s not theorize about this; why don’t we just do it!” was Coleman’s battle cry. And before the virtual meeting had ended, he had bought a batch of radish seeds online to be delivered to his home. A subsequent video meeting prompted another impulse buy. “Video chats clearly stimulate me,” Coleman jokes. This time, it was desert sand, which is often sold to be used as a top layer to make indoor potted plants look pretty.

Armed with the radish seeds and desert sand, Coleman was ready for serious business.

“We’re trying to show astronauts can use horticulture to grow their own food on the Moon,” he explains. “We want to do one tiny step in that direction, to show that lunar soil contains stuff which can be extracted from it as nutrients for plants. This includes getting the right chemical elements to allow plants to make chlorophyll and grow cell walls.”

Because the Moon always faces Earth as it orbits our planet every month, it is essentially turning on its axis once a month. The lunar timeline (one Moon day equals 28 Earth days, 14 days of daylight) makes quick-sprouting radishes a good bet for relatively rapid experiment results. It will be possible to complete the experiment in one lunar day, starting just after dawn.

Research in the Home Kitchen

Coleman started his first radish experiment by cutting paper towels into small squares, adding water, stuffing them into a container, then tucking in three radish seeds at a depth of half an inch. Only one sprouted – apparently the one that somehow got enough oxygen to germinate. Once the sand arrived, Coleman ditched the paper towels and started using it in a four-compartment deli container.

He put varying amounts of water in the four sections. The result: Radishes in the section with the least water germinated first and best, which was interesting because, he says, “we want to see how little water we can get away with.” Coleman adds, “This immediately had an impact on how we would do the experiment with water and lunar soil if we get it to the Moon.” He considers this an example of serendipity in research.

Coleman also raided the kitchen for chopsticks to make holes in the soil surface for each seed. And at one point, he added kitchen-counter “electrodes” to measure moisture levels and track evaporation in the desert sand: He folded aluminum foil four or five times to make a strip, then used his battery tester to measure electrical resistance from the water.

The team’s research is aimed at biological in-situ resource utilization – tackling such challenges as where to get food as opposed to how to get water and oxygen. Coleman explains that, for future astronauts, “the more you can use what’s already there, the more efficient you can be because you don’t have to carry that much with you.” Their specific work is to develop a small payload on a commercial spacecraft going to the Moon, which, if selected, would be delivered to the lunar surface through the NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. The team planned to develop the experiment as a suitable payload for a CLPS spacecraft in terms of size, mass, power requirement, and communication needs.

By going to the Moon, the radish experiment would complement plant predecessors tested under microgravity conditions on the space station. For example, the currently flying Vegetable Production System, or Veggie, features plants growing in specially prepared soil, with the goal of eventually providing food for space station astronauts.

“We can’t properly test here on Earth with perfect lunar soil, but we’re doing as much here as we can. Then we want to show that it actually does work on the Moon,” Coleman says.

Principal Investigator Pamela E. Clark leads the JPL radish research team, which includes John Elliott, who started the project, and Gerald Voecks, who works with Coleman on measurements. Together, they’re designing the potential Moon experiment and a payload that would put lunar soil in a chamber, where water and air would be added in an attempt to raise radishes. JPL’s Human/Robotic and Emerging Capabilities Office is funding the current work.

Growing Young Minds

Coleman has been documenting the sprouting radish experiment with his smartphone and sharing the progress with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Lillibette, in England. He even ordered a second radish-seed purchase for her. Her response to her grandfather? “I could plant them and eat radishes, or I could plant them and do what you’re doing.”

Coleman says that if the lunar payload concept were to fly someday, Lillibette and other children might be able to follow the mission. The team plans to include a small, simple camera, and make images and other data available so that, as he envisions it, “kids of Earth can watch radishes grow on the Moon.”

News Media Contact

Matthew Segal
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-8307
matthew.j.segal@jpl.nasa.gov

Written by Jane Platt

2020-140

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    Since 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has increased its resources to enforce a prohibition on importing goods made with forced labor, but has not determined its workforce needs. CBP formed the Forced Labor Division in 2018 to lead its efforts, and increased expenditures for the division from roughly $1 million in fiscal year 2018 to $1.4 million in fiscal year 2019. However, CBP has not assessed and documented the staffing levels or skills needed for the Forced Labor Division. For example, the division suspended some ongoing investigations due to a staff shortage and has plans to expand and train its workforce; however, the division has not assessed the number, type, locations, or specialized skills of positions it needs to achieve programmatic results. Without assessing its workforce needs, the division lacks reasonable assurance that it has the right number of people, with the right skills, in the right places. CBP has increased forced labor investigations and civil enforcement actions, but managers lack complete and consistent data summarizing cases. CBP detained shipments under 13 Withhold Release Orders (WRO) from 2016 through 2019, as shown in the figure below. However, the Forced Labor Division uses incomplete and inconsistent summary data to monitor its investigations. For example, data were missing on the sources of evidence collected for almost all active cases. Incomplete and inconsistent summary data on the characteristics and status of cases may hinder managers' effective monitoring of case progress and enforcement efforts. Figure: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Forced Labor Withhold Release Orders, 2016 through 2019 With regard to criminal violations, DHS's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has increased its resources to investigate allegations of forced labor, including those related to U.S. imports. ICE coordinates criminal investigations of forced labor, conducted in the U.S. and abroad. ICE reported spending about $40 million on forced labor investigations in fiscal year 2019, an increase of over 50 percent since 2016. Forced labor investigations often involve a range of criminal violations, including violations that are not related to the importation of goods. As such, reported expenditures include costs for cases on related issues, such as human trafficking. Forced labor is a global problem in which individuals are exploited to perform labor or services. The International Labour Organization estimates that forced labor generates profits of $150 billion a year globally. CBP is responsible for enforcing Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibits the importation of goods made with forced labor. CBP has authority to detain shipments when information indicates that forced labor produced the goods. ICE is responsible for investigating potential crimes related to forced labor, and importers may be subject to prosecution. GAO was asked to review the status of DHS resources for implementing the Section 307 prohibition on forced labor imports, following an amendment of the law in 2016. This report examines (1) the extent to which CBP assessed agency needs for the enforcement of the prohibition on forced labor imports, (2) the outcome of CBP enforcement activities and monitoring of such efforts, and (3) ICE resources for investigations on forced labor. GAO reviewed CBP and ICE documents and data, and interviewed agency officials. This is a public version of a sensitive report GAO issued in July 2020. Information that CBP deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO is making three recommendations, including that CBP assess the workforce needs of the Forced Labor Division, and improve its forced labor summary case data. CBP concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or gianopoulosk@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    A former investment manager was charged in an indictment unsealed today for his alleged participation in a scheme to defraud a North Carolina-based life insurance company out of over $34 million.
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    In U.S Courts
    Five openly LGBTQ judges from different backgrounds and experiences offer insight into their lives before and after appointment to the federal bench in a new U.S. Courts video released in observance of Pride Month.
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  • Justice Department Announces $1.2 Million Dollar Settlement of Title VII Intentional Race Discrimination and Retaliation Lawsuit Involving Law Enforcement Victims in Maryland
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department announced today that it has reached a settlement with the Worcester County Sheriff, in his official capacity (currently Matthew Crisafulli, formerly Reggie Mason), and the state of Maryland, resolving allegations that a former staff member was subjected to a racially hostile work environment and that he and others who supported him were retaliated against after he complained about the racial discrimination. The Justice Department also announced the settlement of related retaliation claims filed against Pocomoke City, Maryland that were resolved on Dec. 4, 2019.
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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