On Tuesday, China announced it had grown the first ever plants on the moon, days after landing on the moon’s “far side” Von Karman crater. The cotton seed sprouts seemed to have been able to withstand the harsh lunar conditions: freezing temperatures, lower gravity levels, and radiation.
But by Thursday, the fledgling cotton seed sprouts had died, according to Liu Hanlong, the experiment lead, in a government press conference statement.
The cause of death: Temperatures inside the 1-liter canister the plants were in had dived to -52 degrees Celsius.
On January 3, China made the first ever soft-landing on the moon’s far side in the 115 foot-wide Von Kármán Crater. The mission planned to accomplish a few different tasks in addition to the plant experiment, including searching for water at the moon’s poles. The rover, named Jade Rabbit 2, will attempt explore and to send never-before seen footage of the crater and far-side surface back to Chinese researchers.
The germinated cotton seeds were part of a mini-biosphere, an enclosed canister meant to create a micro-ecosystem for earth life. The experiment—which contained soil, potato, rapeseed, and rockcress seeds, as well as yeast and fruit fly eggs—was meant to test if and how life could survive on the moon. It’s not the first time plants have been grown in outer space—astronauts have grown mini-gardens on the International Space Station, and two healthy earthworms have previously been born in simulated Martian soil.
Xie Gengxin, professor at Chongqing University and chief designer of the experiment, told state-run Chinese media outlet Xinhua that potatoes "could be a major source of food for future space travellers. The growth period of Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard, is short and easy to observe. Yeast could play a role in regulating carbon dioxide and oxygen in the mini biosphere, and the fruit fly would be a consumer of the photosynthesis process.”
The cotton were the only seeds to sprout, however, and despite much speculation about the future possibility of moon clothes, the cotton plant’s main purpose this time was give researchers a lot of valuable data on how to cultivate life in the moon’s harsh conditions.
The eventual ability to grow plants on the Moon could prove useful for long-term space missions, like a trip to Mars. Astronauts could theoretically harvest their own food in space, avoiding the need to return to Earth to resupply.
After Chang'e-4 landed on the far side of the moon earlier this month, the probe was sent a command to remotely water the plants and start the growing process. A tube directed natural light on the surface of the moon into the canister to allow the plants to grow.The probe entered a "sleep mode" on Sunday, the first lunar night after the probe's landing. By Wednesday, the fledgling cotton sprouts were doomed.
Professor Xie Gengxin of Chongqing University, who designed the experiment, told CNN that the control team had decided to shut off power to the canister because temperatures in the mini biosphere had become unmanageable, and both plant life and eggs would likely die anyway during the lunar night, which lasts 27 days.
Chang'e 4 is the latest step in China's robotic lunar-exploration program, named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. China plans to launch the Chang'e 5 sample-return mission sometime this year.