Chinese Spacecraft Successfully Grows Plant on Moon

When one thinks of growing plants, farms and tractors in the heartlands of America come to mind, not China. In early January 2019, China successfully germinated a cotton plant on the moon. Although the plant died within a few hours, according to The Guardian’s Hannah Devlin claimed this sprout is a “giant leaf for mankind”. China believes that if possible in the future, space travel will become easier. Allowing astronauts and scientist to be able to grow their own unlimited food source, creating more room in the International Space Station.

Photo by the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of China National Space Administration (CNSA)

Photo by the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of China National Space Administration (CNSA)

On December 8th, 2018, China launched Chang’E-4, the first lunar exploration mission to land on the far side of the moon. The spacecraft successfully entered orbit 4 days after launch. The lander is armed with scientific technology to study the geophysics of the moon. 27 days after launch, the landing craft successfully touched down in a 110-mile diameter crater named Von Karman. Twelve hours later, the Yutu-2 rover was deployed to start surveying the unexplored side of the moon.

Earth-like biosphere by Weibo

Earth-like biosphere by Weibo

Inside the unmanned lander is an earth-like biosphere with an array of bio-luminescent organisms. Previously, plants grew in space, in the International Space Station. However, never on the rocky surface of the moon. On January 15th China changed that. In photos captured by the camera on the craft appears to show cotton shoots successfully growing within an airtight canister that could shelter the plant from temperatures as low as –148° F. China’s goal for the micro biosphere was to be able to create a mini-ecosystem, with plants such as potatoes and cotton. According to Bernard Foing lead scientist of ESA’s Smart-1 lunar orbiter, the plants would have worked as oxygen and food to sustain the fruit flies. Many problems arose when the biosphere landed on the moon. One, the moon has extreme temperature swings between day and night that the heating mechanism couldn’t contest. Also, not having a gravity-driven connection made it a challenge to mix air in a closed environment. Because of this harsh environment, China selected species who are both high and low-temperature resistant.

What was China trying to learn from the biosphere?

Clive Neal, a geologist at the University of Notre Dame claims the experiment was solely, “to test photosynthesis and respiration on the moon”. The sprout sparks further knowledge about plant growth in a low gravity environment which will help lay a new foundation for space travel.

So, what does this mean for an average American?

Mr. Ricco photo by Eli Wagner

Mr. Ricco photo by Eli Wagner

According to Mr. Ricco, a history teacher at Moeller, “China even going to the moon, let alone growing plants on the moon, is important.” He went on to say, In China, only 10% of their land is fertile enough to grow agriculture, therefore cotton is the easiest crop to grow in Asia due to the growth rate and the small area it takes to grow cotton. So why did China grow cotton instead of plants they have a hard time growing? Ricco thinks that it is mostly a political stance and that China is trying to prove space superiority over other countries.

The sprout puts China one step closer to its dream of building a human civilization on the moon. According to NPR’s journalist David Kestenbaum, “sending a person into orbit would run to more than $100,000.” That is just the price into orbit, to send a human to the moon it costs about $1.5 million. Although an interesting concept many people such as Mr. Ricco thinks that it wouldn’t be worth it due to the cost.

Despite the success and failure, one thing is clear, China has proven that growing plants on the moon is possible. The sprout creates hope for China’s space agency, who recently announced the Cheng’E 5 mission will launch before the end of 2019. Despite the issues of the ecosystem, Chang’E 4’s other mission initiatives are running smoothly. The results of the experiment could lead to new understandings of the challenges civilization one day might face on the moon.

Eli Wagner