Barely after it had sprouted a leaf, the cotton plant onboard the Chinese lunar lander Chang’e-4 has died due to temperatures as low as 170ºC. A cotton seed had germinated on the craft after it had touched down on the perpetually dark half of the moon, Chinese media reported on Tuesday.
The historic feat was billed as a “giant leaf for mankind” as China’s state-run media reported that a small green shoot was observed growing aboard the lander. The sprout was growing inside a canister, scientists at the Advanced Technology Research Institute at Chongqing University informed, based on photographs released by ARTI.
However, Professor Xie Gengxin of Chongqing University, who led the design of the experiment, said its short lifespan had been anticipated. “Life in the canister would not survive the lunar night,” Xie said.
Before China finished packing up its
The team from Chongqing University designed a “mini lunar biosphere” with rapeseed, rock cress
The yeast, acting as a decomposition agent, processed waste from the flies and the dead plants to create an additional food source for the insects.
The test load was put inside an 18 cm-long cannister with lattice, containing optimal quantities of air, water, and soil. It was sealed from the extremes of temperature and strong radiation on the
Images initially sent back by the probe showed a cotton plant exhibiting healthy growth although none of the other plants had sprouted, the university said.
“This is the first time humans have done biological growth experiments on the lunar surface,” Xie had told the media on Tuesday. He said that the six
Why it matters
“We have given consideration to future survival in space. Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base,” Liu Hanlong, head of the experiment, told Chinese media on Tuesday. He said potatoes could be
This discovery records stupendous progress in the study of the possibility of life elsewhere in
Although plants have previously been grown in the International Space Station, this is the first time one grew on the moon. At the ISS, scientists regularly tend plants to study human growth-related changes in microgravity (to diversify astronaut diets in space). Plants and seeds have orbited Earth on and off throughout spaceflight history with the closest instance of vegetation on the moon occurring in
Chang’e-4’s accomplishment, however, stands to open new doors for harvesting food in space using locally extracted water, thus allowing astronauts to sustain longer in space instead of returning to earth to replenish supplies. It may also help in framing the blueprint for growing resources during a future moon colony established by humans.
“We have given consideration to future survival in space. Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base,” Liu said.
About the Chang’e-4 mission
China became the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon on January 3 when a rover named Yutu 2 touched down in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, to perform experiments in the moon’s largest and oldest impact crater, Von Kármán. It is believed to be a major step in China’s ambitions to become a space superpower.
One of the purposes of the mission was to test whether plants could grow in a low-gravity and strong radiation environments, a test which appears to have already yielded results. Other tasks of the Chang’e-4 mission include conducting the first lunar low-frequency radio astronomy experiment and exploring whether there is water at the moon’s poles.
China’s ambitions for space and lunar exploration aren’t limited to the current mission. Planning a Mars mission around 2020, China’s space agency on Monday announced four more lunar missions including Chang’e-5 which will be launched by the end of the year with a goal to bring moon samples back to Earth, for the first time since the
According to Wu Yanhua, deputy head of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the Chang’e-6 mission will be designed to bring samples back from the lunar south pole of the moon, followed by probes that will conduct comprehensive surveys of the area. All these missions will also lay the groundwork for the construction of a lunar research base, possibly using 3D printing technology to build facilities, Wu said at a press conference this week.
With the world’s first truly otherworldly plant, despite its premature but anticipated death, China has already made a visible mark on space, in the event of lunar colonisation. The
The article was updated on January 17, 2019, at 10 am to include the cotton plant’s death.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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