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‘Moon Tree’ takes root on East Campus | Nebraska today

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s newest tree is perhaps the most well-traveled member of the East Campus community. The sweetgum, planted on June 4, spent 25 days in space on NASA’s Artemis I mission during its time as a seed.

Ann Powers, regional and community forestry lecturer, addressed a crowd of about 30 spectators from a sloping lawn just east of Hardin Hall and described the Moon Tree’s journey, as well as plans for its future.

An average sweetgum seed, Powers said, moves about 200 feet with the wind before germinating. This Sweetgum, affectionately called ‘Luna’, traveled approximately 2.1 million kilometers and completed three orbits around the moon.

Powers said she will eventually use the tree to introduce her students to concepts such as seed dispersal, tree growth rates and changes in climate. Luna’s seed came from a mature sweetgum tree in central Louisiana, where his ancestors faced much milder winter conditions than Luna probably did in Nebraska.

“I’m a little concerned about that,” Powers said. “But if it grows, it will really be a testament to climate change and the warming of winters in Nebraska.”

The Department of Biological Systems Engineering plans to monitor the tree as it grows. Santosh Pitla, associate professor of advanced machine systems, worked with Powers to apply for the Moon Tree.

His team will collect soil data and measure how well the tree grows and photosynthesizes compared to established sweetgum trees nearby.

“It experienced a lot of gravitational effects,” he said. “There are many earth-bound sweetgum trees; we could look at their growth rates and the growth rates of this (one).”

According to NASA, a thousand seeds went into space on an unmanned Orion spacecraft at the end of 2022. The mission brought them within 80 miles of the moon’s surface, Powers said. In addition to sweetgums, Douglas fir, loblolly pine, American sycamore and giant sequoia seeds made the trip.

The sweetgum and sycamore seeds eventually germinated under the care of the US Forest Service at the Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery in Halsey, Nebraska. The nursery, named for the founder of UNL’s original forestry program, cared for the young trees for about a year before sending them to Moon Tree managers across the country.

For Powers, continuing the university’s forestry legacy and exploring new frontiers was both exciting and surprising.

“I didn’t think my work studying trees and talking about trees would one day lead me to space,” Powers said. “It’s really interesting to see the connections we have all over campus.”