There Are Plants and Animals on the Moon Now (Because of China)
China’s Chang’e-4 lander touched down on the far side of the moon (Jan. 3 Beijing time, Jan. 2 US), and it’s got some living things on board.
A small “tin” in the lander contains seeds of potatoes and rockcress (Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard, as well as a model organism for plant biology), as well as silkworm eggs. The idea, according to a report in The Telegraph earlier this year, is that the plants will support the silkworms with oxygen, and the silkworms will in turn provide the plants with necessary carbon dioxide and nutrients through their waste. The researchers will watch the plants carefully to see whether the plants successfully perform photosynthesis, and grow and bloom in the lunar environment.
“We want to study the respiration of the seeds and the photosynthesis on the moon,” Xie Gengxin, chief designer of the experiment, told Xinhua, a Chinese state-run news agency. [See Spectacular Lunar Mission Images in 3D (Photos)]
The “biosphere” experiment was the product of a collaboration between 28 Chinese universities, led by southwest China’s Chongqing University, according to Xinhua. The experiment, which is tucked inside a 1.4-pint (0.8 liters) aluminum alloy cylinder, weighs about 7 lbs. (3 kilograms) and includes dirt, nutrients and water. Sunlight will filter into the container through a “tube,” and small cameras will watch the little environment. That data will beam back to Earth by means of the complicated relay system China has set up to communicate with an experiment that has no direct line of sight to Earth.
“Why potato and Arabidopsis? Because the growth period of Arabidopsis is short and convenient to observe. And potato could become a major source of food for future space travelers,” said Liu Hanlong, chief director of the experiment and vice president of Chongqing University, as reported by Xinhua. “Our experiment might help accumulate knowledge for building a lunar base and long-term residence on the moon.”
Rockcress has been grown in space before, including in one experiment on the International Space Station that showed the plants’ leaves appearing to rise and fall as they detected the moon’s gravity. But whether the flowering plant will flourish in the environment of the far side of the moon remains an open question.
For now, though, this means that there’s life in at least one other place in the solar system (even if it’s only because we put it there).
Those Tiny Cotton Sprouts China Grew on the Moon? They’re Dead Now
They were the little cotton sprouts that could: a handful of seedlings that poked themselves up from the dirt inside a small biosphere on China’s lunar lander, Chang’e-4.
Yes, the plants were stunted compared with the earthbound control plants. But they had just survived a space launch and difficult journey to the moon, and were growing in the low gravity and high radiation of extraterrestrial space. They were the first plants ever to grow on the lunar surface. None of the other species that made the trip with them showed any similar signs of life.
Now they’re dead. And it’s all the moon’s fault.
During a news conference today (Jan. 16), project leader Liu Hanlong explained the plants’ deaths in their little, faraway can, the Hong Kong publication GB Times reported.
As night fell on the region of the far side of the moon where Chang’e-4 sits, temperatures plunged in the 5.7-lbs. (2.6 kilograms) mini biosphere. Hanlong reportedly said that the temperature inside the chamber had fallen to minus 62 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 52 degrees Celsius), and could continue to plunge to minus 292 degrees F (minus 180 degrees C). The experiment is effectively over, as the lander has no onboard mechanism for keeping the experiment warm without sunlight.
So what, precisely, would have happened to the extraterrestrial growth as temperatures plunged?
Some plants are better at dealing with cold than others, as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) explained in a post. As days shorten and temperatures drop, the plants flood their cells with sugar and other chemicals to lower the freezing point of the water inside. This process is important because it keeps intracellular water from turning to ice crystals that expand and shred cells from the inside. Other plants also toughen cell membranes, or — in extreme environments, plants survive freezes by dehydrating themselves, literally pumping water out of the cells.
However, according to the FAO, all of these “hardening” techniques require that, for several days, the environment send t signals that winter is coming. This is why sudden frosts can kill even cold-weather plants on Earth. And cotton, native to warm regions on Earth, is not particularly well adapted to the cold in the first place.
The lunar nighttime chill would have been nothing like the gradual seasonal shift to which plants are adapted. During the two-week daylight period, temperatures on the lunar surface can be as high as 212 degrees F (100 degrees C). But when night falls, they can rapidly plunge to minus 279 degrees F (minus 173 degrees C).
So the cold shock to the cotton was likely brutal and sudden. Water in newly formed cells would have turned quickly to ice, flaying them open from the inside. Any buds and leaves would have gone first, according to research published in 2001 in the journal Annals of Botany. A close look at them under microscopes would reveal cell membranes wrinkled and folded on themselves like burst water balloons. The hardier stems would have frozen shortly afterward.
At the same time as the cells froze, that study found, water between the cells would have frozen as well. That process would have sucked more water out of the cells before it could freeze, killing the cotton by dehydration as much as physical destruction.
Though no earthly plant is known to survive at temperatures colder than even the middle of Antarctica, the cotton likely wouldn’t have put up a fight to prevent its death without any autumnal light shifts to signal the temperature change.
The end of those cotton sprouts was probably nasty, then. But at least it was quick. We salute the botanical explorers, now frozen in their lunar graves.
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