by Rafi Letzter
January 03, 2019
from LiveScience Website

Is the moon really

"a harsh mistress?"

(Composite image)
Credit: World Perspectives

Getty Images


China's Chang'e-4 lander touched down on the far side of the moon (Jan. 3 Beijing time, Jan. 2 U.S.), and it's got some living things on board.

A small "tin" in the lander contains seeds of potatoes and rockcress (Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard, as well as a model organism for plant biology), as well as silkworm eggs.


The idea, according to a report in The Telegraph earlier this year, is that the plants will support the silkworms with oxygen, and the silkworms will in turn provide the plants with necessary carbon dioxide and nutrients through their waste.


The researchers will watch the plants carefully to see whether the plants successfully perform photosynthesis, and grow and bloom in the lunar environment.

"We want to study the respiration of the seeds and the photosynthesis on the moon," Xie Gengxin, chief designer of the experiment, told Xinhua, a Chinese state-run news agency.

The "biosphere" experiment was the product of a collaboration between 28 Chinese universities, led by southwest China's Chongqing University, according to Xinhua.


The experiment, which is tucked inside a 1.4-pint (0.8 liters) aluminum alloy cylinder, weighs about 7 lbs. (3 kilograms) and includes dirt, nutrients and water.


Sunlight will filter into the container through a "tube," and small cameras will watch the little environment.


That data will beam back to Earth by means of the complicated relay system China has set up to communicate with an experiment that has no direct line of sight to Earth.

"Why potato and Arabidopsis? Because the growth period of Arabidopsis is short and convenient to observe.


And potato could become a major source of food for future space travelers," said Liu Hanlong, chief director of the experiment and vice president of Chongqing University, as reported by Xinhua.


"Our experiment might help accumulate knowledge for building a lunar base and long-term residence on the moon."

Rockcress has been grown in space before, including in one experiment on the International Space Station that showed the plants' leaves appearing to rise and fall as they detected the moon's gravity (Lunar Gravity affects leaf movement of Arabidopsis thaliana in the International Space Station).


But whether the flowering plant will flourish in the environment of the far side of the moon remains an 'open question' (read below report...!)

For now, though, this means that there's life in at least one other place in the solar system (even if it's only because 'we' put it there)...










-   A First for Humankind   -

China Successfully Sprouts a Seed on the Moon
by Stephen Johnson
January 15, 2019

from BigThink Website





  • China's Chang'e 4 lunar lander touched down on the far side of the moon on January 3.

  • In addition to a lunar rover, the lander carried a biosphere experiment that contains five sets of plants and some insects.

  • The experiment is designed to test how astronauts might someday grow plants in space to sustain long-term settlements.



China's Chang'e 4 biosphere experiment

marks a first for humankind...

A plant has sprouted on the moon in a Chinese probe, marking the first time a plant has grown on the lunar surface, according to an image and statements released the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on Tuesday.

The image appears to show cotton shoots successfully growing within an airtight canister aboard China's Chang'e-4 lunar lander, which touched down on the far side of the moon on January 3 (2019).


The plant is part of the mission's "moon surface micro-ecological circle" experiment, which also includes,

  • rapeseed

  • potato

  • arabidopsis

  • yeast

  • fruit flies

Chinese professor Liu Hanlong, head of the experiment, announced on Tuesday that the cotton seeds were the first to sprout, and also that rapeseed and potato seeds had sprouted and were growing well as of Saturday.

It's an experiment designed to test how humans might someday grow food on lunar bases, a necessity for any long-term settlement.

"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," Hanlong told the South China Morning Post.

The micro-ecological circle in the experiment was carefully designed to withstand the harsh conditions of the Moon, with the six organisms behaving synergistically as "producers, consumers and decomposers":

The plants produce the oxygen and food, sustaining the fruit flies.

Meanwhile, the yeast decomposes waste from the flies and dead plants, creating more food for the insects.

The experiment shows that astronauts on future missions would likely be able to grow potatoes for food, cotton for clothing and rapeseed for oil. It's not the first time a plant has been grown in space.


Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have successfully grown,

  • lettuce

  • zinnia

  • rice

  • onions

  • peas

  • cabbage

  • sunflower

  • cucumbers

What's more, a panel of algae positioned outside of the space station managed to survive some 530 days, withstanding the vacuum and temperatures ranging from -68 to 116.96 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and night, respectively.




The challenge and necessity of space plants


Matt Damon in The Martian,

growing potatoes on Mars.

The Chinese scientists have also sprouted

a potato seed on the Moon

in the same experiment series.

If humans are going to colonize the Moon or other planets, they're going to need a reliable and replenishable source of high-quality food.


Developing the technology and skillsets required for such a food source is a major obstacle that all space agencies are working to overcome.

Obviously, it'd be much easier to plan and execute a trip to, say Mars, if space agencies could simply send astronauts off with a cache freeze-dried food that would last decades.


But the quality of the nutrients and vitamins in these preserved foods degrades over time, even though the preservation process does prevent microbiological changes.


That's a problem, considering astronauts returning from a Mars mission would likely be eating freeze-dried food that's more than five years old. That is, unless they grow their own plants.

Of course, growing fruits and vegetables requires the right amounts of oxygen, carbon dioxide, humidity, light and temperature control, and gravity - all of which can be extremely difficult to control in space.


Another problem is soil:

It's necessary for plant growth, but it also takes up precious space, and plants won't readily grow in the soil on the moon or Mars.

That's why NASA has been exploring techniques that use as little soil as possible.

In 2016, one of those experiments yielded red-romaine lettuce for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, thanks to NASA's plant growth system dubbed "Veggie".





All of this said, what China has showed the world this week is important because learning how to grow plants in space, particularly extraterrestrial bodies, is necessary for the physiological health of astronauts on long-term missions.


Interestingly, there's reason to think these space gardening efforts are also important for astronauts' psychological well-being - at least in the sense that fresh plants might, in some way, keep them connected to Earth.

"We've heard from a lot of astronauts who comment to the effect of, 'I thought that I'd miss the cheeseburger or pizza the most when I came back, but what I really wanted was a fresh salad'," Gioia Massa, a NASA scientist studying food production in space at the Kennedy Space Center, told The Verge.


"So, we think having that fresh, juicy, crunchy texture in their diet can be really important."