China Focus: Moon sees first cotton-seed sprout

Christopher Davidson
January 17, 2019

Image: China's lunar rover Jade Rabbit 2.

Camera IconIn this photo provided January 12, 2019, by the China National Space Administration via Xinhua News Agency, the lunar lander of the Chang'e-4 probe is seen in a photo taken by the rover Yutu-2 on January 11, 2019.

Chang'e-4's probe took pictures of the cotton sprouts - but it was noted that the other plant seeds have not grown yet.

Now, in the first ever biological experiment to take place on the moon, cotton seeds housed in a sealed container on board the Chang'e 4 lander have begun to sprout.

The China National Space Administration's lunar lander, seen on January 11.

In an attempt to better understand how plants and animals could grow and live on the lunar surface, Chongqing University equipped the Chang'e 4 lander with a "mini-biosphere" experiment, which is created to be a self-sustaining ecosystem, according to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.

The Chinese Moon lander was carrying among its cargo soil containing cotton and potato seeds, yeast and fruit fly eggs contained within an 18cm tall, 3kg canister designed by 28 Chinese universities. The yeast is used to decompose plant material and provide the files with other food sources.

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These plants were chosen because they are small, able to withstand high and low temperatures, and resistant to radiation, the Chongqing University scientists said.

However, plants have successfully been grown on the worldwide Space Station (ISS).

"We have given consideration to future survival in space", professor Xie Gengxin, the experiment's chief designer, told the South China Morning Post.

Xinhua also posted a video showing a simulated seedling growth test on Earth, leading to some questions about the earlier images and whether they came from the moon experiment or its Earth counterpart.

CNSA hopes that this experiment will be useful for exploring future long-term missions to space.

Until this experiment, the researchers said they weren't sure it was possible to grow plants in a low gravity environment. If harvesting in space using locally available water becomes a reality, then astronauts can survive in space for longer duration without requiring supplies from Earth.

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