In the quest to realize humankind’s dream of stepping beyond Earth and sustaining life elsewhere, we propose an innovative approach that harnesses the elegance and efficiency of nature itself. Inspired by the lush, vibrant ecosystems of Earth’s salt marshes, we envision a biodome on the lunar surface, a “Moon Marsh” teeming with life and providing a wealth of invaluable resources.
The Challenge: Supporting Life on the Moon
Creating a viable, long-term life support system on the moon is no easy task. The lunar surface is harsh, with its negligible atmosphere, wide temperature fluctuations, 14 day-long day/night cycle, and reduced gravity. Overcoming these conditions to establish a sustainable system capable of producing essentials with only access to in-situ resources is crucial. Traditional life support systems would require continuous resupply from Earth, a costly and unsustainable endeavor. So, how can we solve this challenge?
The Solution: A Biodome-Ecosystem Inspired by Earth’s Marshes
We propose a biodome that mimics a salt marsh ecosystem, a system renowned for its productivity and biodiversity. The ecosystem planned for this biodome will include an assortment of hardy grasses, algae, and microbes, all contributing to a cycle of growth, decomposition, and renewal. With the ability to withstand bright, intense light, resilience to both biotic and abiotic stressors, and a remarkable rate of biomass production and nutrient turnover, a marsh is the perfect candidate for an autonomous ecosystem on the harsh lunar surface
Location: The Peaks of Eternal Light
The biodome needs energy – and a lot of it. Ideally, it would need sunlight all year round to drive photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into chemical energy. But the surface of the moon is subjected to 14 days of light, then 14 days of night, as it is is tidally-locked in its orbit around the earth, rather than spinning. This is where the Peaks of Eternal Light come into play – they are points on the Moon’s surface that receive almost constant sunlight. Located at high elevations (such as the rims of craters) around the poles of the moon, they are exposed to light 90-100% of the time! By placing the biodome in these areas, we can harness an abundance of solar energy, eliminating the need for artificial lighting and heating.
Recycling and Resource Production
One of a marsh’s most impressive features is its ability to turn waste into wealth. Nitrogenous waste (feces and urine) and inedible biomass (plant stems/roots) from nearby lunar bases, normally viewed as useless, will be fed into the biodome. There, like leaves falling into a compost pile, microbes will break them down, creating a number of valuable resources.
The primary output of the biodome is biomass – plants and algae that grow using the constant sunlight, water, and recycled nutrients. In this lunar economy, biomass is akin to gold. It serves as a raw material for producing everything from food to fuels, making it a cornerstone for the self-sufficiency of lunar colonies.
Beyond its role as a biomass producer, the biodome serves as a chemical laboratory. Certain marsh plants can produce bioactive compounds, the precursors to pharmaceuticals that could potentially be harvested for medical purposes.
The nitrogenous waste from humans, which can be hard to recycle through traditional means, can easily be converted back into plant fertilizer with the help of the robust microbiome of the marsh. Wastewater treatment marshes are already in use on Earth with incredible efficiency, so it’s a simple matter of validating that the same processes will work in microgravity.
Moreover, anaerobic microbes in the soggy soils of the marsh, in their quest for energy, would produce methane, a volatile gas that can be harnessed as fuel. It’s akin to having a small, natural gas station on the moon.
The Long-Term Sustainability of Lunar Settlement
Bioregenerative life support systems are a long term investment. Biological systems operate on much longer time scales than physicochemical systems, but the benefits significantly outweigh the costs. They are self-replicating, self-healing systems that never require new parts. Like machines, they may take some maintenance to remain at peak efficiency, but with foresight you should never find yourself in a position where you are lacking a critical piece necessary for survival.
Its ability to recycle waste, produce biomass, yield potential pharmaceuticals, and generate methane provides a diverse range of resources that are invaluable to a sustainable lunar settlement. By learning from Earth’s marshes and applying their lessons on the Moon, we take a significant step towards creating a lasting presence beyond our home planet.