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Cotton Seed Sprouts on the Moon’s Far Side in Historic First by China’s Chang’e 4

By Meghan Bartels 15 January 2019

Before China finished packing up its Chang’e 4 lunar lander to be blasted off on a never-before-accomplished journey to the far side of the moon, scientists slipped in a small tank holding plant seeds. And now, the team announced, a cotton seed has sprouted.

That makes it the first truly otherworldly plant in history. Astronauts onboard the International Space Station regularly tend plants to study how growth changes in microgravity (and to diversify astronaut diets in space), and plants and seeds have orbited Earth on and off throughout spaceflight history. But the closest that terrestrial vegetation has come to the moon before now was in 1971, when Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa carried hundreds of tree seeds to orbit the moon with him. Many of these seeds were later planted back on Earth, becoming “Moon Trees.”

In addition to cotton, the Chinese moon capsule also includes seeds to grow potatoes and a common lab plant called Arabidopsis, neither of which have sprouted so far. And even the cotton plant is looking pretty peaky compared to seedlings in a control setup the scientists established on Earth.

It’s not particularly surprising that the moon seeds are struggling, since they’ve been through a lot — the drama of launch, uncomfortable temperature swings, low gravity and high radiation.

The capsule and its seeds are stored on the Chang’e 4 lander, which is perched inside Von Kármán Crater on the far side of the moon. The lander is accompanied by the Yutu 2 rover, which has left its grounded counterpart to explore the neighborhood. Both robots are currently experiencing their first long, cold night on the moon, when daytime and nighttime each last about two Earth weeks.

A cotton seed has sprouted in its tank on the Chinese Chang’e 4 lunar lander, which is currently on the far side of the moon.

Giant leaf for mankind? China germinates first seed on moon

A small cotton shoot is growing onboard Chang’e 4 lunar lander, scientists confirm

A photo of the cotton sprout. ‘This is the first time humans have done biological growth experiments on the lunar surface,’ said Xie Gengxin, who led the design of the experiment. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A photo of the cotton sprout. ‘This is the first time humans have done biological growth experiments on the lunar surface,’ said Xie Gengxin, who led the design of the experiment. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Tue 15 Jan 2019 19.50 GMT

A small green shoot is growing on the moon after a cotton seed germinated onboard a Chinese lunar lander, scientists said.

The sprout has emerged from a lattice-like structure inside a canister after the Chang’e 4 lander touched down earlier this month, according to a series of photos released by the Advanced Technology Research Institute at Chongqing University.

“This is the first time humans have done biological growth experiments on the lunar surface,” said Xie Gengxin, who led the design of the experiment, on Tuesday.

Plants have been grown previously on the International Space Station, but this is the first time a seed has sprouted on the moon. The ability to grow plants in space is seen as crucial for long-term space missions and establishing human outposts elsewhere in the solar system, such as Mars.

Harvesting food in space, ideally using locally extracted water, would mean astronauts could survive for far longer without returning to Earth for supplies.

The Chang’e 4 probe – named after the Chinese moon goddess – made the world’s first soft landing on the far side of the moon on 3 January, a major step in China’s ambitions to become a space superpower.

Scientists from Chongqing University, who designed the “mini lunar biosphere” experiment, sent an 18cm bucket-like container holding air, water and soil.

Inside are cotton, arabidopsis – a small, flowering plant of the mustard family – and potato seeds, as well as fruit-fly eggs and yeast.

Images sent back by the probe show a cotton plant has grown well, but so far none of the other plants had sprouted, the university said.

A cotton sprout growing in an “earth chamber” at the university in Chongqing, which mimics the conditions of the experiment inside the Chang’e-4 moon probe. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Chang’e 4 is also equipped with instruments developed by scientists from Sweden, Germany and China to study the lunar environment, cosmic radiation and the interaction between solar wind and the moon’s surface.

The lander released a rover, nicknamed Yutu 2 (Jade Rabbit), that will perform experiments in the Von Kármán crater.

The agency said four more lunar missions are planned, confirming the launch of Chang’e 5 by the end of the year, which will be the first probe to return samples of the moon to Earth since the 1970s.

“Experts are still discussing and verifying the feasibility of subsequent projects, but it’s confirmed that there will be another three missions after Chang’e 5,” said Wu Yanhua, deputy head of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), at a press conference.

According to Wu, the Chang’e 6 mission will be designed to bring samples back from the south pole of the moon and this will be followed by probes that will conduct comprehensive surveys of the area. The series of missions will also lay the groundwork for the construction of a lunar research base, possibly using 3D printing technology to build facilities.

Wu also revealed that China will send a probe to Mars around 2020.

A small cotton shoot is growing onboard Chang’e 4 lunar lander, scientists confirm