China Just Sprouted Seeds on the Moon—It's The First Time Biological Matter Has Grown on Lunar Surface

Artist's illustration of an astronaut growing a plant on another planetary body. Cotton seeds taken to the lunar surface by a Chinese lander have sprouted. iStock

On January 3, China's Chang'e 4 lander made history by completing the first successful landing on the far side of the moon. Now, just two weeks later, the mission has already provided another significant achievement.

The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) released images on Tuesday showing how cotton seeds taken to the lunar surface by the lander have sprouted. This represents the first time that humans have deliberately grown living material on the moon, and indeed, any other planetary body.

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Experts say that the latest accomplishment—which builds on the work of astronauts who have previously grown plants on the International Space Station—is a substantial boost for humanity's hopes of accomplishing long-term space exploration.

In an attempt to better understand how plants and animals could grow and live on the lunar surface, Chongqing University equipped the Chang'e 4 lander with a "mini-biosphere" experiment, which is designed to be a self-sustaining ecosystem, according to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.

Scientists filled a sealed canister—which is made from special aluminum alloys and kept heated to a temperature of around 25 degrees Celsius—with water, soil and air. They also added yeast, fruit fly eggs and the seeds of cotton, rapeseed, potato and rock cress—a flowering plant in the mustard family.

The idea is that the plants produce oxygen and food for the fruit flies. Meanwhile, the yeast helps to regulate the gases in the canister and acts as a decomposing agent, processing waste from the flies and any dead plants. This provides the insects with an additional food source.

The seeds and eggs were kept dormant as the probe traveled through space. Then, when the lander reached the moon's surface, ground control instructed the mini-biosphere to water the plants and expose them to natural light.

#BREAKING The latest released experimental picture shows that cotton seeds carried on the Chang'e-4 probe have sprouted, marking the first biological experiment on the lunar surface #ChangE4

— CGTN (@CGTNOfficial) January 15, 2019

Liu Hanlong, who is leading the experiment, said that the cotton seeds were the first to sprout, in comments to the South China Morning Post.

"We have given consideration to future survival in space," Liu told the Hong Kong–based news outlet. "Learning about these plants' growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base."

Charles Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., told Newsweek that the latest achievement is "very significant" because it shows a proof of concept for growing plants on the moon. These plants could be used to produce food or they could be incorporated into future life support systems—both of which would be crucial to long-term space missions.

"It is the first technical demonstration that we can grow plants on another planetary body," he said. "For future human space exploration, we want to be able to build life support systems that include life to recycle gases and nutrients. So, this is a significant step to building such systems."

"It might also pave the way for sending an automated life support system to the moon which would activate before humans arrive," he continued. "From a purely technical point of view, the seeds are the first living material to be deliberately grown on another planetary body, and that's a significant milestone."

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