China's really cotton'd on to this whole Moon exploration thing: First seed sprouts in lunar lander biosphere

Living in a box, living in a faraway box, I'm living in a box

Pic A tiny cotton seed brought to the Moon's surface by a Chinese spacecraft has apparently just sprouted, quite possibly making it the first Earth-based plant to start growing on our rocky satellite.

Well, growing in a box very close to the surface, anyway.

The People’s Daily, the official state media for China’s ruling Communist Party, tweeted a picture of the experiment, and claimed it is “humankind's first biological experiment on the Moon.”

It’s not immediately obvious, but the growing seedling is nestled somewhere underneath the soil beneath the rectangular grating...

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) stashed cotton, rape, potato and rockcress seeds aboard the Chang’e lander, which was Earth's first spacecraft to successfully touch down on the far side of the Moon earlier this month having blasted off at the start of December.

Growing plants on the Moon is – and this is a technical term, here – tricky. There isn’t enough carbon dioxide nor any liquid water to support vegetation naturally. Boffins have had to build a small self-sustaining biosphere inside a sealed canister within the Chang’e-4 Moon lander. The sphere also contains fruit fly eggs and yeast. The plants release oxygen and provide food for the fruit flies, while the yeast converts the oxygen into carbon dioxide for the plants, among other processes.

CNSA hopes that this experiment will be useful for exploring future long-term missions to space. Liu Hanglong, a professor at the school of civil engineering at Chongqing University, who is leading the bio-experiment, told the South China Morning Post, that the rapeseed could produce oil for astronauts, potatoes could feed them, and cotton could clothe them.

Scientists are also studying the Moon’s formation by mapping its surface and internal structure using a spectrometer and radar on the Yutu 2 rover, which detached from the lunar lander after touchdown. A separate module is looking at the effects the Sun’s coronal mass ejections have on the Moon. Last week, CNSA released the first pictures taken from the far side of the Moon. ®

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