Moon sprouts: one small step for cotton, one giant step for China

A total eclipse of the full moon was visible in Athens on 27th July 2018. Credit PA

For the first time anybody is aware of, seeds have sprouted on a celestial body beyond Earth.

"This has achieved the first biological experiment on the moon of human history, to sprout the first bud on the desolate moon", Xie said in a university blog. The lander also brought rock cress, fruit fly eggs, and yeast to the moon, all chosen because they were small, hardy organisms that could thrive in a confined space. For example, astronauts on the ISS are now working with an orbital agriculture experiment called Veggie which has recently faced issues with plant mold. Chongqing University calls the experiment a "lunar mini biosphere".

In the biosphere, the plants are shielded from harmful radiation, and the temperature is maintained artificially, since the moon lacks a sufficient atmosphere to block radiation from space or to regulate heat.

There is still a long way to go before a sustainable habitat could be developed on the lunar surface, but the experiments could be fairly considered to have started that project.

The ability to grow plants on the Moon will be integral for long-term space missions, like a trip to Mars which would take about two-and-a-half years. Cotton could be used for clothing, rapeseed for oil, and the potatoes a source of food.

The Chang'e 4 mission is also set to discover if there is water at the Moon's poles.

The China National Space Agency's Chang'e 4 lander is exploring the mysterious side of our lunar neighbor that faces away from Earth.

China's ambitions for space and lunar exploration aren't limited to the current mission.

Wu Yanhua, the deputy head of the China National Space Administration also announced that China will send a mission to Mars in 2020.

China's successful lunar germination suggests "there might not be insurmountable problems for astronauts in future trying to grow their own crops on the moon in a controlled environment", Fred Watson, an astronomer-at-large with Australian Astronomical Observatory, told the BBC.

The moon is tidally locked to Earth, rotating at the same rate as it orbits our planet, so most of the far side - or "dark side" - is never visible to us.

The China National Space Administration's lunar lander, seen on January 11.

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