You’d think if you just supply plants with the right temperature, some sunshine, and some water, you could farm pretty much anywhere—even the moon.
It turns out moon-farming is much more complicated than that, with hazards coming in from all sides. Yet despite all the challenges, representatives working on the Chinese moon lander Chang’e-4 announced this week that they had successfully sprouted a plant on the moon for the first time ever.
The moon gets plenty of sunlight, at least in some areas, but without the protection of an atmosphere like Earth’s, that sunlight does more harm than good, at least to plants. Cosmic radiation and solar flares can fry a plant before it has a chance to grow. That’s why the University of Arizona’s moon-farm simulator, at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, grows plants underground, with only artificial lighting.
Chang’e-4’s mission included an attempt at a self-contained biosystem, with seeds, nutrients, water, yeast, and fruit fly eggs, to be composed into a hydroponic circulation setup. According to Nature, which spoke to the chief designer of the experiment, the project succeeded in sprouting cotton plants, with future plans for both potatoes and Arabidopsis. (The latter is a relative of kale that’s commonly used for experiments.) The China National Space Administration posted pictures of the sprouting cotton, dated January 7th, last week.
According to Inkstone News, a publication dedicated to China-focused stories, the experiment actually ended when the plants died, during a 12-day-long lunar night that shortly followed the cotton’s sprouting. Inkstone says that the Chang’e-4 hadn’t brought enough power to maintain the rigid temperature controls for long.