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China grew cotton on the Moon, if only for a moment

Published Oct 7th, 2019 11:07PM EDT
plants on the moon
Image: Chongqing University

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China may have had to sit and watch as countries like the United States dominated space for decades, but things are a whole lot different now. China’s space agency has been rapidly catching up to the likes of the US and Russia, and in many ways, it’s even surpassed its peers and broken new ground of its own.

Earlier this year, China’s Chang’e 4 lunar lander successfully performed a soft landing on the far side of the Moon. It was the first time such a feat had been accomplished, and Chinese scientists have been exploring the area around the landing site with the Yutu rover that also made the trip. Now, in a timely update on the mission’s progress, China is providing additional details regarding its successful attempt at growing plants on the Moon.

As IEEE Spectrum reports, the cotton plants are part of an experiment that we have seen before. After the Chang’e 4 lander, uh, landed, and before the first lunar night, a small self-contained biosphere provided our first look at life on the Moon. The capsule contained various seeds including cotton and potato seeds in soil, as well as yeast and even fruit flies.

At least one of the cotton seeds seized the opportunity and sprouted a pair of leaves. A new 3D recreation of the plant (seen above) was just released by China’s Chongqing University, and it’s based on “image processing and data analysis” to give us a better look at the first plant we’ve ever seen on the Moon.

As was expected before the experiments began, the plant died a rapid death at the hands of the rock-bottom temperatures that cover the Moon when night falls. The capsule did not include a heating element, and the plant, seeds, and fruit flies were all subjected to frigid temperatures that they simply couldn’t withstand.

If humans ever set up a permanent presence on the Moon, growing food there would seem like a high priority, and experiments like this one are helping scientists understand the limitations of those future efforts.