On January 3, China made history when it became the first nation to land a probe on the far side of the moon. Among the topics scientists hoped to investigate through Chang’e 4, as the probe is known, is how well plants grow amid the extreme lunar environment. As it turns out, the answer is not very well at all.
China announced earlier this week that a cotton seed on board Chang’e 4 had sprouted, marking the first time that biological matter had been grown on the moon (albeit inside a specialized container). But alas, just 24 hours later, officials at Chongqing University pronounced the cotton plant dead, reports The Independent’s Harry Cockburn.
The cotton had been placed in a canister that also contained potato seeds, arabidopsis (or rockcress) seeds, yeast and fruit fly eggs. The container was filled with soil, water and air, creating a “mini lunar biosphere,” as described by Chongqing University, which designed the experiment. Researchers’ ultimate goal was to gain insight into how future colonists of the moon might grow food there, according to Quartz’s Echo Huang.
Soon after Chang’e 4 landed, scientists remotely instructed the canister to start regulating its temperature, water and light levels. Everything was going well at first, but then temperatures inside the biosphere started to fluctuate dramatically, making it impossible to sustain any life. Xie Gengxin of Chongqing University tells CNN’s Yong Xiong and Ben Westcott that the control team shut the experiment down after nine days.
“Though we have two temperature controlling plates, the temperature was still above 30 degrees Celsius [86 degrees Fahrenheit] around 10.30 a.m. on the moon. As everybody knows, many plants can't sprout with [that] temperature,” Xie says.
He adds that though the project was cut short, he still considers it a success. And other scientists agree, including Simon Gilroy, a professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved in the study.
“If we want to live longer-term off the surface of the Earth, could we take along the biology that we use to keep us alive?” Gilroy says in an interview with NPR’s Amy Held. “It’s fantastic to be able to sort of say, yeah, it's a first tiny step down that path.”
Dead cotton plants aside, China’s mission appears to be going well, and may hold great promise for future lunar study. Previously, spacecraft had photographed the far side of the moon, which perpetually faces away from Earth, but none had landed there. The scientists behind Chang’e 4 hope to use the pioneering probe to learn more about the moon’s geology and interior.
Chang’e 4 has touched down inside the Von Kármán crater, which sits within the Aitken basin near the moon’s south pole. The crater is, according to Steven Lee Myers and Zoe Mou of the New York Times, one of the oldest and deepest on the moon. It may therefore hold important clues about the evolution of the celestial body—and of the wider solar system.