Cotton seeds sprout on Moon

Cotton seeds sprout on Moon after Chinese rover begins era of lunar farming

Image credit: Chongqing University

The China National Space Administration has confirmed that cotton seeds carried to the moon in the Chang’e-4 mission have sprouted, in a promising step towards longer-term space exploration.

Previously, scientists have grown plants on board the International Space Station (ISS) and other craft in Low Earth Orbit, although the sprouting of these cotton seeds mark the first time any biological matter has been grown on the Moon.

The Chang’e-4 mission – a key part of China’s lunar exploration programme – aims to explore the far (‘dark’) side of the Moon. A robotic lander and rover were launched by the national space agency in December and completed a soft landing on flat ground inside a crater near the lunar South Pole. The rover will survey the terrain of the Moon, collect data on its mineral composition and take measurements to help understand its environment.

It also carried sealed containers holding air, soil, water, cotton, rapeseed, potato, and rock cress seeds, yeast and fruit fly eggs, which it aims to cultivate in the lunar environment. The seeds were rendered dormant with undefined “biological technology” for their journey to the Moon and only began to grow when a command was sent to water them.

Today, Chinese state media announced that the cotton seeds had begun to sprout. The People’s Daily posted a photograph of the sprouting cotton on social media, and described the achievement as “the completion of humankind’s first biological experiment on the Moon.”

Professor Liu Hanlong, who leads the experiment, said that rapeseed and potato seeds had followed the cotton seeds in sprouting, although so far only a photograph of the cress has been released.

Professor Xie Gengxin, chief designer of the experiment, told Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that: “We have given consideration to future survival in space […] Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base.”

The mission aims to use the crops to form a tiny biosphere: a self-sustaining environment. The crops were chosen due to their small size and their usefulness to future manned missions; the plants would be used as sources of food, oil and textiles.

Longer-term space exploration programmes, such as efforts to set up semi-permanent Martian bases, are likely to be reliant on the ability to cultivate extra-terrestrial plants in order to negate the need for extremely expensive and years-long trips to provide supplies.

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