Onboard China’s Chang’e-4 lander, on the dusty gray lunar surface, a tiny green sprout has sprung into life in one giant leap for plant-kind.
China has made history, yet again, by successfully germinating a cotton seed on the far side of the Moon, marking the first time any biological matter has been grown on the lunar surface, Chinese state media reports.
Chang’e-4, named after the Chinese Moon goddess, pulled off the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the Moon on January 2, 2019. It’s already beamed back some incredible images of this relatively unexplored landscape, but now China is steaming ahead with the first-ever biosphere experiment on the Moon.
The cotton plant seed germinated inside an air-tight canister onboard the lander of the Chang’e-4 probe. The canister also contains air, soil, and water, as well as seeds for rapeseed, potato, and Arabidopsis flowers. It even holds a sample of yeast and fruit fly eggs.
The seeds lay dormant during Chang’e-4’s voyage to the Moon. On the day after touchdown, January 3, ground control gave the go-ahead to start watering the plants and commence the pioneering experiment. The inside of the “biosphere” is monitored with two cameras and hooked up to a heat-control system. So far, the cameras only show the germination of the cotton seed, but the team is still holding onto hope that the others will spring to life too.
All of the biosphere’s components play an important role in the experiment. The flowering plants were picked because they will be relatively easy to observe on the cameras. The fruit fly will, fingers crossed, be used as a consumer of growing plants. Meanwhile, the yeast will play a role in regulating carbon dioxide levels inside the sealed canister.
As for the potatoes, well, you’ve seen The Martian, haven’t you? This plant was chosen because it could be used as a food source for future crewed missions to the Moon and beyond.
“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,” said Professor Xie Gengxin, the experiment’s lead scientist, according to The South China Morning Post.
China has bold dreams of sending a crewed mission to the Moon in the 2030s. While these plans are preliminary at the moment, very little seems to be stopping their meteoric rise as a force to be reckoned with in the space race.