It marks the first time a plant has been grown on the Moon.
China made history by landing its Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the Moon’s far side. The mission was also the first to experiment with growing plants on the Moon, and it brought a mini-biosphere called the Lunar Micro Ecosystem to the lunar surface (LME). Except for the microgravity and cosmic radiation, the conditions within this small, cylindrical biosphere were similar to those on Earth. The LME included the following:
- potato seeds
- cotton seeds
- fruit fly eggs
- Arabidopsis thaliana, a common weed
Except for the cotton, all of these died quickly. The 3D reconstruction shows that the cotton plant grew two leaves before dying due to cold temperatures after about two weeks. The findings indicate that the experiment was slightly more successful than previously thought.
The experiment’s leader, Xie Gengxin of Chongqing University’s Advanced Technology Research Institute, has no plans to publish any scientific papers based on this research. He does, however, hope to continue researching how various lifeforms might be able to survive on the Moon.
WHY NASA WANTS TO GROW PLANTS IN SPACE
If NASA or other space agencies want to launch long-term missions, they must learn how to reliably grow plants in space.
“Simply packing some multi-vitamins will not be enough to keep astronauts healthy as they explore deep space,” NASA wrote. “They will need fresh produce.”
Why? Some reasons are logistical in nature. Nutrients in supplements and prepared meals, for example, will degrade over time, and radiation may help accelerate this process. As a result, growing fresh produce would provide astronauts with more nutrients, as well as better-tasting food. Also, if astronauts could grow plants on spacecraft, they wouldn’t need to bring as much prepared food with them.
But there are also psychological benefits to growing plants in space.
“We already know from our pioneering astronauts that fresh flowers and gardens on the International Space Station create a beautiful atmosphere and let us take a little piece of Earth with us on our journeys,” NASA wrote. “They’re good for our psychological well-being on Earth and in space.”
NASA is also interested in making astronaut dining in space a pleasurable experience. For example, on recent missions, the agency packed comfort food and holiday meals, and it conducted research on astronauts’ preferences for communal versus solo dining, as well as whether they benefit from cooking their own food. Other researchers are exploring how astronauts’ emotional needs can be met through space dining, as well as how to counteract space-travel-specific phenomena such as loss of sense of smell.
“At the end of the day, we’re not worried about the muscle cells,” NASA nutritionist Scott Smith told Eater. “We’re worried about the human.”