China's Moon Plants That Sprouted Are Already Dead

Yesterday the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) announced that cotton seeds carried to the far side of the moon by its Chang'e 4 lander had sprouted, marking the first time that humans had successfully grown living material on the surface of another world.

But just a day later, it has emerged that the sprouting cotton buds died as night fell over the lunar far side. The seeds formed part of a brief experiment aimed at understanding how plants and animals can grow and live on the moon.

Related: China has sprouted seeds on the moon—it's the first time biological matter has grown on the lunar surface

The experiment involved a "mini-biosphere" consisting of a sealed metal canister filled with water, soil and air, which was designed to be its own self-sustaining ecosystem. To this mix, scientists added yeast, fruit fly eggs and the seeds of cotton, rapeseed, potato and rock cress—a flowering plant in the mustard family.

The concept behind it was that the plants would produce oxygen and food for the fruit flies. Meanwhile, the yeast would help to regulate the gases in the canister and act as a decomposing agent, processing waste from the flies and any dead plants. The plants in the biosphere require natural light from the Sun, so the death of the sprouts as the canister entered the lunar night—where temperatures can dip to as low as -280 degrees Fahrenheit—was anticipated by mission planners.

"Life in the canister would not survive the lunar night," Xie Gengxin, leader of the experiment from Chongqing University, told Xinhua, China's state-run, English language news agency.

According to the CNSA, the organisms inside the canister will gradually decompose, but because it is sealed, they will not contaminate the lunar environment. None of the other plants in the experiment sprouted, and it is unclear whether any of the fruit fly eggs hatched.

Despite the brevity of the experiment, experts have hailed the controlled growth of plant life on the moon as a historic achievement that significantly boosts humanity's hopes of one day building a sustainable lunar base, as well as attaining long-term deep-space exploration.

Being able to grow plants on other planetary bodies could potentially provide humans with food, as well as other important resources, such as fuel and clothing. Astronauts have previously grown plants in several experiments aboard spacecraft like the International Space Station.

Charles Cockell, an astrobiologist from the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., told Newsweek that the latest achievement is "very significant" because it demonstrates the feasibility of growing plants on the moon.

"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."

Meanwhile, David Grinspoon, a scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, said that China's accomplishment was "very potent symbolically and interesting scientifically."

"Of course, plants have been grown in Earth orbit, but there is symbolic potency in the fact that these are the first plants grown on another world. One small step for 'plant kind,'" he told Newsweek. "But then these creatures could not have done this by themselves, so it is really a small step for humankind. It's not a giant leap, but if humans are ever to go and live elsewhere in the solar system, we will have to take our biospheres with us and learn how to tend them elsewhere."

Grinspoon also noted that even though the latest experiment demonstrated the potential of growing plants on other worlds, humans still have a long way to go before such technologies are sufficiently advanced to be sustainable.

"While it's true that plants cannot go to the Moon or Mars without us, it's also true that we cannot go to Mars—at least to stay—without plants, and myriad other creatures," he said. "I suspect this biospheric aspect of human space habitation will be much more difficult than the engineers think. We have a great deal to learn about life and its mutual dependencies before we'll be able to do it in a self-sustaining way. Growing a plant on the moon is a tiptoe in that direction."

China's Chang'e 4 lander made history on January 3 when it completed the first successful landing on the far side of the moon.

This article was updated to include comments from Charles Cockell.

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These sprouted cotton seeds carried on the Chang'e-4 lander mark the first biological experiment on the lunar surface. CNSA
China's Moon Plants That Sprouted Are Already Dead | Tech & Science