China Grew Cotton on the Moon

Anya Yang, Staff Writer

Cotton seeds carried to the moon by a Chinese probe germinated, marking what could be the first plant to ever sprout there. China also became the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3 when a rover named Jade Rabbit 2 touched down on the oldest and largest impact crater: the South Pole Aitken Basin, deploying a rover to explore lunar terrain. The lander was carrying a container filled with soil and seeds. On Jan. 15, photos from the China National Space Administration (CNSA) showed the cotton seeds had begun budding.  The image was published on the People’s Daily, China’s Twitter feed, which is run by the country’s state-owned media group.

“Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base,” Chongqing University’s Liu Hanlong, who is supervising the biology experiment, said in a comment, according to the South China Morning Post. The company is currently developing introductory plans for a crewed lunar landing mission in the 2030s, with the hopes of building a successful moon base with global cooperation later.

Chinese researchers have been working on plans to grow plants in the potential international moon base. The cotton seeds were a revolutionary breakthrough towards understanding how plants can survive on non-Earth locations. The soil and seeds were secured in an airtight container designed to maintain an average temperature of 25 °C. The organisms had access to air, water, nutrients, and biospheric elements such as decomposing yeast.

However, the cotton plants withered on Jan. 16. They didn’t survive the lunar night, which can reach a freezing -173 °Celsius. Mission planners didn’t expect the plants to live, Newsweek reported. Since nobody actually expected any of the plants to flourish, the cotton plants’ demise was used to help scientists understand what the baseline is for overcoming challenges with sustainability. “Although it is a biological payload for popularizing science, it laid a foundation and technological support for our next step, that is, to build a lunar base for living,” said the experiment’s chief designer Xie Gengxin.

More than just rice was sent to the moon in the package, though. There was rapeseed, Arabidopsis, and potato in the soil in the container, along with yeast and fruit fly eggs. Gengxin explained in a statement potatoes could’ve been a major source of food for future space travelers. The growth period of Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard, was relatively short and easy to observe. Yeast could have also played a role in regulating carbon dioxide and oxygen in the mini biosphere, and the fruit fly was to be a consumer of the photosynthesis process.

Although the plants died, the period of time where they prospered is helping scientists learn more about the moon. Lunar experiments are going underway and even more discoveries are coming to light, thanks to this successful trial.


Photo courtesy of THE-SCIENTIST.COM