China’s Chang’e 4 mission already made history when it completed the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon. Now, it’s accomplished another first: An experimental module on the lander filled with seeds has succeeded in growing the first Earth plants on another world. Eventually, the lander could be home to a miniature ecosystem.
Humans have already grown some plants outside Earth’s atmosphere. On the International Space Station, astronauts have long run experiments on plants like lettuce. In 2015, the crew was able to enjoy the first salad ever grown in space. The Chang’e 4 mission is the first instance of humans growing plants on another planet or moon, though.
The Chang’e team loaded the lunar mission with various seeds including cotton, oilseed rape, potato, and Arabidopsis. The hope was the seeds could be grown on the moon and provide data about how plants behave in the low-gravity environment. After landing on the moon on January 3rd, scientists started monitoring the plant specimens for evidence they were germinating. Now, the China National Space Administration confirms cotton, rapeseed, and potatoes have all started growing.
You can see a cotton plant germinating in the above image. The organisms are inside a sealed chamber with an atmosphere, heat, and some shielding to protect them from the harsh radiation of deep space. Although, the plants are probably encountering much more radiation than those on Earth. They’re not alone, either. The Chinese team also included fruit fly eggs and yeast. It’s unclear how the low gravity and radiation will affect the organisms.
Hypothetically, the plants, fruit flies, and yeast could form a short-lived ecosystem inside the Chang’e 4 lander. The flies (if they hatch) could use the oxygen generated by the plants. Decaying plant biomass would provide a food source for the fruit flies, and the yeast could process the fly waste. It’s not clear any of this will work as expected on the moon, though.
In the future, plants grown on the moon could provide a source of food and raw materials. The oxygen generated could also sustain astronauts. Chang’e 4 is stationary, but it carried the Yutu-2 rover to the moon as well. This robot will be able to explore the area around the lander in the South Pole-Aitken basin. China hopes to launch a follow-up mission late this year that will return samples from the moon to Earth.
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