Is photosynthesis possible on the Moon? Indian students are finding out

A brother-sister duo from Kolkata are sending an experiment on photosynthesis to the moon on Team Indus spacecraft, set to be launched by year end.

india Updated: Mar 30, 2017 12:02 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
Malavika Vyawahare
Hindustan Times
Photosynthesis,Team Indus spacecraft,Team ZΩi
That spacecraft will host Team ZΩi’s experiment to observe photosynthesis in cyanobacteria on the moon.

Santosh Roychowdhury, 25, remembers the exact moment he fell in love with the universe. As a child, he spent a night camping on the roof of their house in Kolkata to watch a meteor shower. “I was awake looking at thousands of shooting stars, then a beautiful sunrise followed and that was the moment when I truly fell in love with the universe,” he recalled, explaining what drove him to participate in a competition to place an experiment on the moon on India’s first privately funded moon mission.

Roychowdhury’s team, Team ZΩi, won the second prize in the Lab2Moon competition hosted by Team Indus, a Bangalore-based space startup sending the spacecraft. That spacecraft will host Team ZΩi’s experiment to observe photosynthesis in cyanobacteria on the moon.

“It is one of the most challenging problems now trying to find out how to sustain this fragile phenomenon called life in the harsh conditions of space and extraterrestrial environments like Moon, Mars and beyond,” Roychowdhury, who has a masters in Theoretical Physics and hopes to pursue a PhD in cosmology.

In recent years, the prospect of life beyond earth has begun to feel less like science fiction and more like a scientific quest. NASA announced this month the discovery of a cluster of planets in a nearby star system that has as many as three potentially habitable planets.

“For our survival it is absolutely essential that we step outside our comfort zone and become a multi-planetary species,” according to the young scientist.

The TeamIndus moon mission is potentially groundbreaking in its own right. If it is successful it will become the first private Indian startup to land a craft on the moon. They are finalists in Google’s Lunar X challenge, which requires teams to land a spacecraft on the moon and guide it for 500 metres, all the while transmitting high definition video and images to earth. The teams are competing for prizes worth US$30 million.

In June 2016, TeamIndus organised the Lab2Moon competition allowing youngsters to devise experiments that would be included on their moon mission. The final results were announced earlier this year and Roychowdhury’s team won the second prize. An Italian team came in first.

Team ZΩi, Sukanya Rowchowdhury, Santosh Chowdhury and Autumn Conner (from left to right). (Courtesy: Santosh Roychowdhury)

Roychowdhury did not have to look far to find a partner to enter into the competition. His sister, Sukanya Roychowdhury, is a science lover like him and in his own words a“super genius.” But inspiration and support also came from afar. About two years ago Roychowdhury connected with Autumn Conner, 24, a graduate student at Arizona State University, at an online physics forum, and very soon they discovered their common interest in space exploration.

They brought Conner on board. The association with Conner had another fortuitous result. The cyanobacteria they wanted to put on the moon are very rare, they are found in only three places: Antarctica, Atacama desert and some deserts in Israel. Fortunately, ASU had batches of the bacteria that the team received access to.

The prototype of the solar can Team ZΩi is planning to send to the moon. (Courtesy: Santosh Roychowdhury)

Their experiment, that will be housed in a solar can, 110 millimetres in height, 65 mm in diameter and weighing 250 grams. The contraption will host the cyanobacteria, a nutrient medium in which they can survive, sensors and regulators providing all necessary conditions for photosynthesis for the bacteria. The only thing that will be uncontrolled will be the sunlight.

Once they make the lunar landing, the cyanobacteria will be released into the medium and closely monitored for photosynthetic activity, utilising the carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

Their hopes for the experiment go beyond being able to show that photosynthesis can happen on the moon. In the future these cyanobacteria might help sustain extraterrestrial settlements, Roychowdhury hopes, maybe other species could survive these conditions by genetically modifying them to incorporate genes of these bacteria.

While their aspirations are out of the world the challenges the brother-sister duo faced in pursuit of their passions were more commonplace. Their father is a school teacher and mother is a homemaker. “Getting to this has not been easy coming from a lower middle-class family with everyone insisting on money and job being more important than passion and dream,” Roychowdhury said.

Their parents came onboard but their grandfather took the most convincing that his grandchildren would not become engineers but were rather interested in pursuing pure sciences. When he came around, he asked Roychowdhury for one thing, to aim to win two Nobel prizes, one for the sciences and one for peace, to use his knowledge for the benefit of humanity.

His grandfather passed away from cancer a few years ago, but, Roychowdhury said his words continue to guide him in his pursuits. “I know there are thousands if not millions like me, Autumn and my sister, who want to do something for the world who want to understand the world a little better but who might be facing a lot of problems or are discouraged from following their dreams,” he said. “All we want to tell them is never give up.”

First Published: Mar 30, 2017 07:10 IST