China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft has brought plants and animals to the moon after successfully landing on the far side of the natural satellite of Earth yesterday.
As well as radiation monitoring and mineralogical experiments, Chang’e-4 probe contains potato seeds, silkworm eggs and arabidopsis seeds – plants related to cabbage and mustard that are commonly used by biologists as a model for how plants behave in different environments.
The seeds and eggs are kept in a small cylindrical tin and are expected to grow inside the 0.8L container.
The ‘lunar mini biosphere’ is part of Beijing’s biological studies in space as it plans to build a lunar base and eventually put people on the moon by 2036.
Researchers hope the potato and arabidopsis seeds will grow to blossom on the moon in 100 days, with the process captured on camera and transmitted to Earth, according to a previous report from Huanqiu.com citing Xinhua News Agency.
The silkworm eggs are also expected to hatch into larvae before growing into silkworm moths.
The 6.6lb (three kg) tin is made from a specially developed aluminium alloy. It is seven inches (18 cm) tall, with a diameter of six inches (16 cm) and a net volume of 1.4 pints (0.8 litres).
As well as seeds, it contains water, a nutrient solution, air and equipment including a small camera and data transmission system.
Astronauts have previously cultivated plants on the International Space Station. Rice and arabidopsis were also grown on China’s Tiangong-2 space lab.
Both of these experiments were conducted in low Earth orbit and under very different conditions.
Speaking to Xinhua last year, the chief designer of the ‘lunar mini biosphere’ Xie Gengxin called the experiment ‘significant’. Xie said it could herald a breakthrough for them to understand how humans might be able to survive on an alien planet.
Zhang Yuanxun, a director from China’s Deep-space Exploration Associated Research Centre, said the difficulties of the experiment was to control the temperatures and ensure energy supply for the ‘lunar mini biosphere’ in the ‘complicated’ environment on the moon.
The lunar day and night each lasts for 14 days, half of its orbit around Earth. The temperatures on its surface could range from the peak of 127°C (261°F) to lows of -173°C (-279°F).
To control the temperatures, scientists put insulating layers around the tin and built a mini air-conditioning system inside hoping it could provide a pleasant environment for the plants to grow.
To obtain energy, the tin will be powered by the solar panels on Chang’e 4 during the day and its internal batteries during the night.
Researchers from 28 Chinese universities are behind the project, led by southwest China’s Chongqing University.
Ouyang Ziyuan, a chief scientist of China’s lunar-exploration programmes, remains humble. He told Chinese news outlet The Cover last month the ‘lunar mini biosphere’ was an experiment to satisfy humans’ curiosity of space and its results would be hard to tell.
But the leading cosmochemist, dubbed ‘the father of Chang’e’, also said that the launch of Chang’e 4 was only the start of China’s ambitious space missions.
At a talk in May, Ouyang said China planned to send Chang’e 5 onto the moon in 2019 to dig into the surface and bring geological samples back to Earth.
He also confirmed China’s plan to land on Mars in 2020, build a lunar base called ‘Lunar Palace’ on the moon and send astronauts onto our nearest celestial neighbour.
Chang’e-4 has been described as ‘hugely ambitious’ and heralded as a sign of China’s growing intentions to rival the space exploration prowess of the US, Russia and the EU.
It touched down in the Aitken basin’s Von Karman crater on the far side or dark side of the moon at 10.26am local time (2.26am GMT) yesterday. It transmitted back to Earth a never-before-seen image of the unexplored surface.
This is the first time on human history that a spacecraft has landed on the other side of the moon.
A moon rover, the Yutu-2 – or Jade Rabbit 2 – drove off the ramp of Chang’e 4 onto the snow-like exterior of the moon’s far side at 10:22pm local time (2:22pm GMT).
A photo posted online by China’s space agency showed tracks the rover left as it headed away from the spacecraft.
Jade Rabbit 2, which weighs 308lbs (139kg) has six individually powered wheels so it can continue to operate even if one wheel fails.
It can climb a 20-degree hill or an obstacle up to eight inches (20cm) tall and its maximum speed is 220 yards (200 metres) per hour.
It is 1.5 metres (five feet) long and about one metre (3.3 feet) wide and tall, with two foldable solar panels and six wheels.
The rover and its accompanying lander will carry out mineral, biological and radiation tests ahead of a future base that China hopes to build on the moon.
The results of these experiments could lead to new understandings of the challenges faced by settlers who may one day colonise our natural satellite.