Life on the Moon: China Is Testing a Self-Sustaining Space Station That Could Allow Long-Term Lunar Living

Space Station
Volunteers smile from inside a simulated space cabin in which they temporarily live as a part of the Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

While some nations may be content to simply set foot on the moon, China has bigger things in mind. President Xi Jinping has said he wants his country to become a force in space exploration, and the plan is to start at the celestial body closest to Earth.

China wants to send a probe to the dark side of the moon by next year, and put astronauts on its surface by 2036, Reuters reports. But those astronauts may be staying for a bit longer than Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: As part of its Lunar Palace 365 project, China is testing a self-sustaining space station that provides inhabitants with everything a person needs to survive, which could lead to extended stays on the moon.

Related: How rocket fuel mined from the moon will get us to Mars

On Sunday, four students at Beihang University in Beijing entered Lunar Palace-1, a 160-square-meter bioregenerative life-support base located in one of the city's suburbs. They replaced a group who lived inside the station for 60 days, but the latest batch of students to call Lunar Palace-1 home will not leave until they've been living self-sufficiently for 200 days. "I'll get so much out of this," Liu Guanghui, a Ph.D. student who entered the bunker on Sunday, told Reuters. "It's truly a different life experience."

The station's specifications have been meticulously curated. "We've designed it so the oxygen [produced by plants at the station] is exactly enough to satisfy the humans, the animals and the organisms that break down the waste materials," said Liu Hong, the project's principal architect.

While living in Lunar Palace-1, students will recycle everything from leftover plant matter to their own waste. The latter task may bring to mind the Matt Damon character Mark Watney in the 2015 film The Martian, in which an astronaut was forced to jerry-rig a space station to support him after he was left on Mars. In addition to using his own waste to fertilize plants, Watney had to cope with the psychological toll of being isolated from the outside world. The same is true of the Chinese students testing Lunar Palace-1.

"They can become a bit depressed," Liu Hong said of the students. "If you spend a long time in this type of environment it can create some psychological problems."

Students are given specific daily tasks that help keep their spirits up, but it's difficult to gauge the psychological effect of living in an environment so radically different than what a person is used to. When NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned from living on the International Space Station for 340 consecutive days, he spoke of how the psychological stress was "harder to quantify and perhaps as damaging" as any physical changes he experienced.

Liu Hui, a student who participated in the initial 60-day experiment at Lunar Palace-1, said she at times "felt a bit low" at the end of the day. The students currently in the station will be there for more than three times as long as Liu Hui, so the psychological effect of a prolonged stay remains to be seen. It's a trick problem, but one that China and the rest of the world will have to negotiate if humanity ever wants to colonize anything outside of the Earth's atmosphere.