China Grew Cotton Plants on the Moon. They Died in the Darkness and the Cold

By Chelsea Gohd | January 18, 2019 4:14 pm
An image returned from the Chang'e-4 mini biosphere experiment on the far side of the Moon on January 7, around 02:00 UTC. Chongqing University/CNS

Cotton plants budding in the Chang’e 4 mini biosphere experiment on the mission’s lunar lander on January 7. Just a couple hundred hours later, these plants have died. (Credit: Chongqing University/CNS)

Dead Plants

Earlier this month, an experiment on China’s Chang’e 4 lander got cotton plants to sprout on the moon for the first time. Well, they’re already dead.

On Jan. 7, China’s space agency released pictures of cotton seeds beginning to grow on the Chang’e 4 lander. But, as reported by GBTimes on Jan. 16, the new sprouts haven’t survived the freezing temperatures on the lunar surface, even in their protective capsule. The cotton seeds sprouted inside of a container as part of the lunar mini-biosphere experiment aboard the lander. And, just over a week later, or some 213 hours, the experiment is over and the plants are dead, GBTimes reported. The seeds of other plants like potato, Arabidopsis, and rapeseed, as well as fruit-fly eggs and yeast were also placed within the experiment’s roughly six pound canister.

With controlled humidity, air, water, and nutrients, this container was specifically designed to keep these organisms alive. But the lunar surface is an extreme place for any living thing to grow. From the low gravity to the high radiation levels and extreme temperatures that can swing wildly from about minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit at night to 250 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime, it isn’t easy for Earth organisms to survive on the lunar surface. That was made apparent when the cotton seeds in the experiment became the first plants to sprout on the lunar surface and then quickly perished.

Freezing Lunar Temperatures

The cotton plant’s demise was caused by the freezing temperatures that washed over as day turned to nighttime on the moon. Since the moon takes about 27 Earth days to rotate, day and night each last about two weeks. The experiment ran on solar power and didn’t carry a battery because it would have been too heavy. So, once night fell, the power went out.

The canister containing the young cotton plants reached a temperature of minus 62 degrees Fahrenheit, said Liu Hanlong, who led the experiment at Chongqing University, at a government press conference earlier this week. After the two-week-long nighttime ends on the moon and day breaks, the dead cotton buds will rot within their capsule.

It had previously been suggested that this experiment might last 100 days, as opposed to the 212.75 hours it actually lasted. Still, because the cotton seeds sprouted so quickly, the experiment yielded observable results which can be further studied back on Earth.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • jonathanpulliam

    The PRC Chinese don’t take such great care of the plants, people, or institutions they have right here on terra firma, Muchachos y Muchachas. Boycott PRC Chinese products. Divest from poor-transparency PRC Chinese listed stocks and bonds and their issuers. Ask your legislator to encourage President Trump to enforce tougher economic sanctions against auto-cratic human-rights violators like PRC China.

    • Uncle Al

      PRC is a “nice” police state. Its Socialism has evolved from dogma (a slaughterhouse) into dogma plus looking the other way (a feedlot). At the far end, It’s hooks hanging from chains either way. Let’s try that as Amerizuela – Pol Pot with compassion.

      The US does bigger stunts with interplanetary stuff, accumulating “data.” Infrastructure leaves a mark.

      • OWilson

        The problem with communist China, is that they can pull those “nice” freedoms they need for economic growth, at any time.

        But that presents major problems too.

        Once you let the great unwashed out of the plantation, it’s hard to squeeze them back in! :)

        How hard they will squeeze is yet to be seen in places like Taiwan!

  • OWilson

    Put some of our more enterprenurial marijuana growers incharge of the project.

    They’ll figure a way to get a crop! :)

    • Uncle Al

      The International Rice Research Institute – with heavy professionals and ponderous funding – has created near nothing. A few stoners starting with ditch weed created astounding marijuana. The former suckle “more studies are needed.” The latter profit from results.

  • Uncle Al

    The last sentence of a Discover article is ever a call to heavenly grace after protractedly admitting the subject is mired in filth. An engineer’s very first responsibility in solving a problem is identifying its empirical causes. The Chinese lofted and landed a stunt. Apollo was such a thing – but it left behind corner cube arrays allowing lunar laser ranging. Heavy stuff that Plant a few more.

    Would you board an airplane whose designers – and mechanics – were imbued with heavenly grace rather than a timely license to practice?

    • jonathanpulliam

      “…Would you board an airplane whose designers – and mechanics – were imbued with heavenly grace rather than a timely license to practice?”

      Of course I would. Every passenger who ever boarded a Lockheed Constellation has. Just as Adolf Hitler influenced the original VW “Beetle’s” eventual form with his sketches provided to Dr. Porsche, so too was the final form of the “Connie”, possibly the most beautiful heavier-than-air aircraft ever to carry a passenger, was influenced by the famous genius developer of top-secret U.S. technology, Heddy Lamarr’s sketches of her “morphing” of a fish and a flying bird as a favor to her then boyfriend, Howard Hughes, whose performance envelope had been designed entirely by him.

      • Michael Cleveland

        Connie beautiful? Now that’s a stretch for a gangly monstrosity that lacks only buck teeth to complete the picture. It’s hard to design an ugly aircraft, but it has been done. In any event, I’ll take engineering over a flip of the coin, though I fail to see the “heavenly grace” reference. Has the article been modified?

        • jonathanpulliam

          How do plants communicate via sub-terranean mold networks??

    • OWilson

      “Heavenly grace” can be a mite fickle! :)

      “This was the day when the seas will stop their rise and the planet will begin to heal!”, qoth Obama, on his election.

      (To be followed by 8 years of the hottest years on record – NASA)

      Best stick with science! :)

  • Mike Richardson

    The goal of the experiment was to prove the plants would sprout from seeds on the Moon, and to that degree, it was a success. The obvious follow-up is to provide heat, light, and radiation shielding to protect the growing plants, as well as the water and nutrients they’ll need to grow. It would be nice if the U.S. would take that next step, instead of falling behind China in space research.

  • okiejoe

    The Chinese didn’t ‘grow’ cotton plants on the Moon, they got cotton seeds to sprout in a cocoon of Earth conditions. The only thing they proved was that seeds would sprout under Lunar gravity and we already knew they would sprout(and grow) in weightless ISS experiments.

    • OWilson

      Cotton is somewhat of a weird choice, anyway. Future space travelers will need foodstuffs, before towels or T shirts! :)

      Potatoes, corn, rice?

      • Jenjira Johan

        Hemp !

      • Michael Cleveland

        Uh, squeezing the seeds for rocket fuel, maybe?

  • Jenjira Johan

    Wouldnt Hemp be a much more logic choice ?
    Not only could one smo… ooh sorry i mean its the better plant for about everything,


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