Opportunities for greenhouses are expanding - and not only on this planet.

A team of space development companies plans to send a "Lunar Oasis," a tiny experimental greenhouse, to the moon within the next few years.

Paragon Space Development Corp., Tucson, Ariz., the developer of the greenhouse, jumped on board with Odyssey Moon Ltd., also of Tucson, in its mission to send a lunar lander to the moon by 2012. Odyssey Moon is entered in the Google Lunar X Prize, a contest with a $20-million prize for the first private company to send a lander to the moon, move it on the surface and send back images and information. The company is recruiting projects to send up with its lander, and the mini greenhouse has a spot reserved.

Lunar greenhouse set to grow a plant on the moon
                    Courtesy Odyssey Moon Ltd.

A concept model shows the planned design of the Lunar Oasis, a tiny experimental greenhouse that should be on the surface of the moon by 2012.

"One day we'll be sending people there, and the lunar environment is very different than Earth," said Bob Richards, chief executive officer of Odyssey Moon. "So this will be the first attempt to grow a plant on the moon."

The flowering, fast-cycle brassica plant is the one planned for lunar travel. The plant is in the same genus as mustard, cabbage, collards, bok choy, kale, cauliflower, broccoli and turnip, but was chosen over any of those plants because of its 14-day growth cycle and its aesthetics. The lunar day lasts exactly the brassica's two-week growth cycle.

"So, if we plant it just right and if all goes well, it'll be able to plant, grow, flower and seed itself in space," Richards said.

The plant is one used by scientists often, so its genomes are well-studied, making comparisons between Earth-grown and space-grown plants easier to make.

The goal of the lunar greenhouse's presence on the lunar lander is to initiate research on how eventual moon populations could grow their own food, Richards said.

"We believe there's going to be a moon rush and we want to be part of it," Richards said. "It's about actually creating an economy back and forth to the moon. The greenhouse is more than symbolic; it's about learning to live off the land."

Richards' view of eventual moon enterprise includes a population that works and lives on the moon, harvesting resources and energy to send back to Earth. That population would need to be self-sufficient, and would need to grow its own food.

"If you consider it an eighth continent, you can't take everything with you," Richards said. "You need to have fresh fruits and vegetables for the quality of life for people living off the Earth. We have people living in space stations orbiting the Earth now, and it's very important for these astronauts to have the quality of life they would on Earth."

Ironically, fresh fruits and vegetables are about the least common food items in astronauts' menus. Raw onions and garlic are about the only produce items that make their way into space in an un-dried form.

Although this will be the first greenhouse on the moon, it won't be the first in space. Paragon has sent two greenhouses to space, one to the International Space Station and one on a space shuttle, Richards said. Paragon also designed a grown chamber and atmospheric control system for a greenhouse built for an eventual Mars trip. The company is also contracted by NASA to build the next generation of space suits.

Richards compares Odyssey Moon to the FedEx of space. He said the company is working on a small lunar mission before the Lunar X Prize came along, but that the company quickly entered and was the first to officially do so. Four projects so far are set to go up with Odyssey Moon's lander, but there should be more by launch time. Accompanying the greenhouse so far are a small telescope, a spectrometer that will gather information from the soil, and human cremated remains.

While 2012 is the deadline set by the Google Lunar X Prize, Richards said the company's lunar lander mission would only launch once everything is ready. The $20 million award goes down to $15 million when 2012 hits, but the prize money doesn't make up the money spent in development anyway, he said.

"In our timeline, it's important that it's right," Richards said. "Our goal is to be the first to market, but that means we'll be going when we're ready."

He said the company has always talked about a late 2011 or early 2012 launch date, but space travel is hard to predict.

"It's not a bunch of space cadets that just want to go to the moon," Richards said. "This is a really important part of our future. And it's not about the money, it's about having the right business development plan."