A week of highs and lows saw Chinese researchers accomplish the first lunar agriculture, only to have the seedlings fatally frosted within days.
The world-first experiment was undertaken by Chongqing University as part mankind’s first visit to the far side of the moon, led by the China National Space Agency.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 15, 2019
Cotton was not the only crop to make its lunar debut. The small cylindrical farm (shown below) aboard the Chang’e 4 lander also contained potato and rape seeds, along with fruit fly eggs and yeast.
The intention behind this carefully crafted passenger list was to create a self-sustaining mini ecosystem, with the fruit flies producing carbon dioxide to fuel photosynthesis. However, cotton was the only plant to successfully show signs of germination.
Researchers did not expect the life inside the canister to survive the first lunar night, which lasts around a fortnight and sees temperatures drop to around -150 Celsius.
They were proven correct this week, when the lunar night hit with a -170 degree cold snap – killing the cotton seedlings.
The lunar ecosystem experiment forms an important part of China’s ambitious lunar exploration program, which includes a longer-term plan for a manned research base on the moon. Worldwide interest in a self-sustaining lunar colony has been reignited following the discovery in August last year of ice on the moon’s poles.
An important factor in these plans will be researching the best way to sustain agriculture in low gravity and extreme temperature variations. This could also yield advancements in varieties and techniques closer to home… watch this space!