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, bringing the brief experiment to an end. The cotton seeds formed part of a “mini-biosphere” experiment aimed at understanding how plants and animals can grow and live on the moon.
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 biosphere was powered by 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.
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 tip toe in that direction.”