The China National Space Agency's Chang'e 4 lander is exploring the mysterious side of our lunar neighbor that faces away from Earth.
A cotton seed planted by Chinese scientists on the moon has officially sprouted, marking the first time humans have successfully grown biological matter on a planet other than Earth.
Although astronauts have cultivated plants on the International Space Station, and rice and Arabidopsis were grown on China's Tiangong-2 space lab, those experiments were conducted in low-Earth orbit, at an altitude of about 400 km. The mission's architects say the experiments could help lay a foundation for one day establishing a lunar base.
Images released by the CNSA now appear to show cotton seeds sprouting, in what the ruling Communist Party's official mouthpiece, The People's Daily, labelled a "first in human history".
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The lunar mini biosphere experiment on the lander is created to test photosynthesis and respiration - processes in living organisms that result in the production of energy.
China plans to launch the Chang'e-5 probe to the moon later this year, with three more in the offing, said Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, at a briefing in Beijing on Monday. Once on the Moon's far side, ground control commanded the lander to water the seeds.
In a hypothetical habitable lunar environment, the cotton seeds could provide material to make fabric, the potatoes and rockcress would provide food, and the rapeseed could be used to produce oil, Xie Gengxin, the chief designer of the project, told SCMP. So far, only the cotton seeds have sprouted.
"It suggests that there might not be insurmountable problems for astronauts in future trying to grow their own crops on the Moon in a controlled environment", he said, adding, "I think there's certainly a great deal of interest in using the Moon as staging post, particularly for flights to Mars, because it's relatively near the Earth". "And with time moving on, it'll be the first plant with green leaves on the moon", Xie said.