The Challenge

Take your own giant leap into lunar exploration with real lunar soil simulant from the Exolith Laboratory!

Participants in the Plant the Moon Challenge will join a global science experiment and research challenge to examine how vegetable crops can grow in lunar soil. Each team will receive real lunar soil simulant from the University of Central Florida’s CLASS Exolith Lab! You will design and conduct a set of experiments using this lunar simulant to grow crops for a future long-duration lunar mission.

Teams will use the Project Guide to help define their own experimental parameters such as the structure of the plant growth setup, amount of water used, and nutrients or fertilizer added to the lunar simulant to support plant growth. After a 10-week growing period you will submit final project reports and join the global network of researchers helping to expand our lunar exploration capabilities!

All participants with completed projects will be invited to showcase their projects at a virtual symposium with NASA scientists, program executives, and other dignitaries where Best-in-Show awards will be presented to teams with the best experiments.

You will submit a report detailing your experiment setup, parameters, and results to help NASA scientists understand how to use lunar soil to provide nutritious crops for future Moon missions! You will submit photos (optional videos), and an experiment report for evaluation by NASA scientists and other researchers based upon a review of the experimental setup and the results of the plant growth. Best-in-show awards will be provided to teams with the best plant growth results and experimental design.

Project Kits

Each registered team will receive a Plant the Moon Project Kit including the following items:

    1. Lunar regolith simulant pack: Including 5 kg (~11 lbs) of lunar highlands simulant (LHS-1), suitable for up to 10 plant growth experiments. (Simulant is sent separately from other materials).
    2. Project Guide : A detailed written guide with a process, recommended experimental parameters, and more information outlining how to setup your plant the Moon experiment. The guide will be your one-stop-shop for all your Plant the Moon needs.
    3. Lunar Simulant Fact Sheet: including detailed information on the makeup and structure of the lunar simulant provided by the CLASS Exolith Lab!
    4. Experimental Parameters Guidelines: additional information on recommended parameters to measure in your experiments.
    5. Plant Growth Research Summary: Including information on previous research from NASA scientists and others about growing plants in space!
    6. pH meter: Valuable in measuring a key parameter in plant growth experiments.

Challenge Process

The Plant the Moon Challenge is a simple process for students of all ages. Follow the steps outline here to get your team started in the PTMC!

    1. Register & pay the project kit fee on the ICS competition platform.
      1. Early Registration Deadline = Dec 15, 2020
      2. Final Registration Deadline = Jan 15, 2021
    2. Receive the Project Kit & Lunar Simulant
      1. By January 22, 2021
    3. Participant in the Planning Webinar hosted after January 22, 2021.
      1. Details emailed to participating groups.
    4. Conduct your 10-week plant growth experiments using the lunar simulant.
      1. February 1, 2021 – grow period begins
      2. April 9, 2021 – grow period ends.
    5. Submit experimental results
      1. April 23, 2021 – experiment report submissions due
    6. Join NASA scientists and other experts for final presentations and best in show awards.
      1. April 29/30 – Final Plant the Moon Challenge virtual summit.

2021 Plant the Moon Challenge
Science Advisory Board

NASA Members

Science Advisory Board

Dr. Ralph Fritsche

Space Crop Production Project Manager, NASA Kennedy Space Center

Ralph Fritsche is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Crop Production Project Manager.  He is leading the effort to develop sustainable and reliable fresh food systems in support of long duration space missions beyond low Earth orbit. Mr. Fritsche began his career with NASA in 1989.  He has supported the US Space Shuttle and Space Station Programs in various engineering and operational roles. Mr. Fritsche is also a recipient of the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.  In addition, he has also earned a dual BS degree in Physics and Space Science from theFlorida Institute of Technology in 1979.

Science Advisory Board

Dr. Christopher McKay

NASA Ames Research Center

Science Advisory Board

Dr. Joseph Minafra

Lead for Innovation and Technical Partnerships, NASA SSERVI

Joseph Minafra serves as Lead of Innovation and Technical Partnerships for the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) at NASA Ames Research Center. Joe has an extremely diverse background that includes developing technical systems for collaborative research, meteoritic studies, biology, project management, software development including user interface design, scientific illustration, and even a few years as a professional chef. With his varied background, Joe has been responsible for a broad set of technical tasks for the NASA Ames Center Director as well as the Space and BioSciences Divisions. Currently, he oversees technology innovation to enable collaboration and communication between competitively selected science and research teams across not only the United States, but internationally as well. Joe has a long history of integrating government work with commercial enterprises and bringing that message to the public through the education and public outreach sectors.

Academic Members

Science Advisory Board

Dr. Robert Heinse

Lead for Innovation and Technical Partnerships, NASA SSERVI

Dr. Robert Heinse is an Associate Professor of Soil and Environmental Physics in the Soil and Water Systems Department at the University of Idaho.  His research interests revolve around water in the soil environment and the characterization using geophysical methods.  Dr. Heinse also entertains a keen interest in growing plants in space having previously conducted experiments on the vomit comet and being involved with experiments on the international space station.  He is a past director of the interdisciplinary water resources program.  Above all, however, he has a growing appreciation for the complexities of human and ecosystem interactions with the physical world.

Science Advisory Board

Dr. Zoe Landsman

Chief Scientist, CLASS Exolith Lab, University of Central Florida

Dr. Zoe Landsman received her Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from the University of Central Florida in 2011. She then worked in private industry as an informatics consultant before returning to UCF for graduate school as a Florida Space Grant Fellow. She received her PhD in Physics with a concentration in Planetary Science from UCF in 2017. Dr. Landsman then worked at the Florida Space Institute (FSI) as a postdoc from 2017-2019. She now works as a research scientist at FSI and is the Chief Scientist of the CLASS Exolith Lab, which develops and produces planetary soil simulants for research and education. Although she is primarily a researcher, Dr. Landsman is also passionate about science education and public outreach. She has worked as a Planetary Ambassador at the Orlando Science Center and as a teaching assistant and as a volunteer at UCF’s Robinson Observatory.

Science Advisory Board

Dr. Andrew Palmer

Associate Professor, Florida Institute of Technology

Chemical Ecology and Astrobiology are the shared themes of research in Dr. Palmer’s lab. Whether it is developing a plan for growing food on a future Mars Colony, or deciphering the chemical signals exchanged between algae and corals, his research lies squarely at the intersection of chemistry and biology. On-going research in Dr. Palmer’s lab evaluates the ability of current Martian regolith simulants to support plant growth, as well as developing new methods to improve their growth in these challenging substrates. In pursuit of that goal, his students are applying both biological as well as chemical approaches to make sustainable plant growth on the Red Planet a reality. His students are as likely to be found at a microscope, in the greenhouse, or in front of a mass spectrometer. Regolith work by Dr. Palmer’s students has received recognition in Science News and the Washington Post.

A Florida native, Dr. Palmer grew up in St. Augustine. He received a B.A. from Florida State University (Tallahassee, FL) in Biochemistry, a PhD in Biomolecular Chemistry from Emory University (Atlanta, GA) and then did an NIH postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently the  Chair of the Marine Sciences Program in the Department of Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology. Dr. Palmer is also affiliated with the Aldrin Space Institute and has been an active contributor to workshops on Sustainability in Space.

Science Advisory Board

Dr. Andrew Schuerger

Assistant Professor, University of Florida

Dr. Andrew C. Schuerger received his BS (1979) and MS (1981) degrees from the University of Arizona and his Ph.D. (1991) from the University of Florida studying microbiology and plant pathology.  His dissertation studied the effects of temperature and pH on spore attachment of the fungal pathogen, Fusarium solani f. sp. phaseoli, to roots of mung bean plants grown in hydroponic systems.  Dr. Schuerger worked for 18 years (1982-2000) at The Land, Epcot Center, FL (a hydroponic research and education facility) developing disease management programs for viral, bacterial, fungal, and nematode diseases of vegetable and agronomic crops.  His research interests have closely paralleled NASA’s Advanced Life Support (ALS) and Astrobiology programs in which he has published numerous papers on plant-pathogen interactions in semi-closed plant growing systems, survival of terrestrial microorganisms under Martian conditions, and microbial ecology of human missions to Mars.  In 1997 Dr. Schuerger joined the Dynamac Corporation (a NASA contractor at the Kennedy Space Center, FL specializing in environmental and life sciences) to pursue research on the remote sensing of plant stress, Mars astrobiology, and ALS plant pathology issues.  In 2003 Dr. Schuerger joined the Dept. of Plant Pathology at the University of Florida as a Research Assistant Professor to continue his Mars astrobiology and ALS research activities.

Associate Members (University Students and PhD Candidates)

Science Advisory Board

Rachel Belton

Senior Undergraduate, University of Central Florida

I am in my last semester as an undergraduate studying physics at UCF. I do astronomy outreach, attended NASA Socials for the Parker Solar Probe and ICON missions, and participated in NASA’s L’SPACE Academies. I was president of the Astronomy Society at UCF for two years and vice president for one year. Currently, I am doing photometric comet research with Dr. Schambeau at FSI. Eventually, I want to be part of making scientific spacecraft or be involved with creating habitable spaces on the Moon and Mars.

Science Advisory Board

Laura Fackrell

PhD Candidate, University of Georgia

Laura’s research has focused on the interactions of geology and microbiology and the implications for the geochemistry and transfer of nutrients in the environment. Especially when these interactions occur in extreme environments (including extraterrestrial). Extreme environments represent conditions where the limits of life can be better understood helping to understand development of life on Earth and the potential for life beyond Earth. She completed her B.S. in geology at the University of Kansas and her M.S. degree at the University of Georgia where she studied the interactions of microbial organisms, nitrogen and trace metals in hot springs of Kamchatka Russia.  She has focused her dissertation research on potential applications of microbiology in exploration of Mars, especially for agricultural purposes. She is also experienced in creating Martian regolith simulants and is using these to conduct multiple plant growth studies to help understand some of the limitations of growing extraterrestrial gardens and how microbial organisms may help bridge that gap.

Challenge Milestones

  • Register & pay the program fee
      • Final Registration Deadline  January 15, 202

  • Receive the Project Kit & Lunar Simulant

      • Sent to teams on January 22, 2021

  • Conduct your 10-week plant growth experiments using the lunar simulant.

      • February 1, 2021 – Grow period begins

      • March 4, 2021 – Mid-Project Webinar

      • April 9, 2021 – Grow period ends

  • Submit experimental results

      • April 23, 2021 – Experiment report submissions due