China is pretty intent on setting space records at the moment. Having recently become the first nation to successfully land a rover on the far side of the moon, the country’s state-run newspaper, the People’s Daily, announced that China has managed to grow plants there, too. In an impressive first in human history, a cotton seed brought to the moon by China’s Chang’e 4 probe has sprouted.
Previously, plants have been grown on the International Space Station. However, a similar feat has never been carried out on the moon. The milestone, therefore, in the words of the People’s Daily, marks the completion of “humankind’s first biological experiment on the moon.” That’s a promising landmark for those who hope to grow supplies of food for deep space missions, as seen in Ridley Scott’s 2015 movie The Martian (and the book it’s based on.)
The Chang’e 4 probe is carrying potato and cotton seeds, in addition to yeast and fruit fly eggs. These are contained in a special biosphere that is 18 cm in height and weighs 3 kilograms. Designed as a collaboration between 28 different Chinese universities, it presents a self-sustaining artificial environment where it is possible to sustain life in order to grow a plant. This artificial environment, which takes the form of a canister, is designed to provide the necessary air, water, and nutrients for the plants, in addition to keeping the temperature stable. That’s not easy when lunar temperatures can vary between negative-173 degrees Celsius (negative-279.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and more than 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit).
Professor Xie Gengxin, the experiment’s chief designer, told the South China Morning Post that: “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.” Gengxin additionally suggested that cotton could one day be used to produce clothing for multi-year space missions, while potatoes could form a source of food, and rapeseed used for oil.
While this definitely goes down in the record books as a Chinese achievement, it nonetheless represents a new exciting step forward for humankind as a whole as far as future space travel goes.