There may be as many as 15 trees in the UK grown from seeds that flew to the Moon during one of NASA’s lunar missions, but their whereabouts remain unknown, according to experts.
Around 500 seeds of different tree species were launched into space nearly five decades ago. They circled the Moon several times before returning to Earth. While most of these so-called “Moon Trees” ended up in the US, it is thought that around 15 of them were planted in the UK.
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the UK Space Agency have teamed up to find out more about where these “living pieces of space history” may be located.
The out-of-this-world seeds – from trees including the sycamore, loblolly pine, sweet gum, redwood and Douglas fir – were flown to the Moon and back by astronauts Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa during NASA’s Apollo 14 mission in 1971.
“We still want to know if any Apollo 14 seeds did come to the UK and – if so – just what happened to them,” said Prof Steve Miller, the RAS vice president.
The RAS said it has followed up various leads without success, adding that Kew Gardens and the Jodrell Bank Arboretum have no records of these seeds. Earlier this year, NASA released a map of the locations of the known Moon Trees but these did not include places in the UK.
Read more about plants in space:
- Space lettuce: tastes awesome, and now confirmed safe and nutritious too
- Turning the Red Planet green: How we’ll grow crops on Mars
The UK, meanwhile, has also performed its own experiments with space seeds. In 2015, 2kg of salad seeds was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) with British astronaut Tim Peake.
When the seeds returned to Earth six months later, children from schools across the country took part in an experiment to see if the radiation in space – which is up to 100 times more powerful than on Earth – would affect the seeds’ germination. The results showed that, while the rocket seeds grew more slowly and were more sensitive to ageing, they were still viable.
The UK is also home to seven apple trees whose saplings – cultivated from the tree which inspired British physicist Sir Isaac Newton to discover gravity – travelled to the ISS with Major Peake.
There could be as many as 15 Moon Trees in the UK – trees grown from seeds flown around the Moon by NASA astronaut Stuart Roosa in 1971. But where are they now?— Royal Astronomical Society (@RoyalAstroSoc) April 20, 2021
The RAS & @spacegovuk would love to know - if you have any information, get in touch!https://t.co/PjJLJdmsUK pic.twitter.com/sOM4k82FYv
“Sending seeds to space helps us understand the effect of the unique environment on seeds’ biological makeup,” said Libby Jackson, human exploration manager at the UK Space Agency. “Understanding the effects of space on ungerminated seeds will be vital for future space missions, including when we look to sustain human life beyond Earth.
“I’ll be interested in discovering if any of the Moon seeds came to the UK and what has become of them.”
It is thought there are currently more than 60 Moon Trees alive on Earth. According to NASA, there are also second-generation trees – known as Half-Moon Trees – that have been grown from Moon Tree seeds around the world.
Is it true that Apollo Moon rock samples went missing?
Apollo 11 was the first mission to bring back samples of rock, soil and dust from the lunar surface but it wasn’t the last. The six Apollo missions that landed on the Moon between 1969 and 1972 returned a total of 382kg of lunar material but, somewhat surprisingly, only a fraction of it has so far found its way into laboratories for analysis.
Some of the samples collected by Apollo 11 and 17, the first and last missions to land on the Moon, were gifted to each of the 50 states of America and other nations around the world by the Nixon administration. But as of today, the whereabouts of more than half of those gifts cannot be confirmed.
Some have gone missing (such the samples given to Brazil, Canada and Sweden), others have been stolen or sold (including Malta’s and Romania’s) and one was mistaken for debris left behind after a fire and accidentally thrown out (Ireland’s).
The scarcity of the Moon rocks returned by the Apollo astronauts makes them a valuable commodity, and with so many missing and unaccounted for, a lucrative black market has emerged in which the rocks are bought and sold.
Most of the rocks being traded are counterfeit, however. To combat this and attempt to locate some of the missing genuine rocks, an undercover project, called Operation Lunar Eclipse, was set up, led by senior special agent Joseph Gutheinz and to date has managed to recover 78 of the lost samples.
In March 2019, NASA announced it will be opening some of the remaining sealed samples for analysis using the latest technology and methods in order to inform future missions to the Moon.
Read more fascinating Q&As: