China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the moon’s far side. The Chang’e-4 lunar rover carried a small biosphere containing six lifeforms, including cotton seeds, as part of its mission. Researchers created a computerized representation of the cotton plant using data from the biosphere experiment, revealing that it grew two leaves before dying to the cold.
China made history when it landed its Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the moon. The mission was also the first to experiment with growing plants on the moon, and it transported a mini-biosphere called the Lunar Micro Ecosystem to the lunar surface (LME). Except for the microgravity and cosmic radiation, the conditions within this compact, cylindrical biosphere were comparable to those on Earth. The LME included:
- potato seeds
- cotton seedlings
- fruit fly eggs
- A common weed is Arabidopsis thaliana.
Except for the cotton, all of these died shortly. A new 3D reconstruction indicates that the cotton plant grew two leaves before succumbing to cold conditions after around two weeks. The data indicate that the experiment was slightly more successful than anticipated.
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, plan to continue researching how diverse lifeforms might be able to live on the moon.
WHY NASA WANTS TO GROW PLANTS IN SPACE
If NASA or other space organizations want to conduct long-term missions, they must learn how to consistently cultivate 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 explanations are logistical in nature. For example, the nutrients in supplements and prepared meals will break down over time, and radiation could accelerate that process. Growing fresh vegetables would provide astronauts with more nutrition as well as better taste food. Also, if astronauts could grow plants on spacecraft, they wouldn’t need to bring as much prepared food on themselves.
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 eating in space more enjoyable for astronauts. For example, on recent trips, the agency prepared comfort food and holiday dinners, and it performed study on astronauts’ preferences for group vs solo dining, as well as whether they benefit from cooking their own food. Other academics are investigating how astronauts’ emotional requirements might be met through space dining, as well as how to counteract room problems such as loss 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.”