The First Plants to Grow on the Moon Are Already Dead
Cotton sprouts grew for about one week in a biosphere brought to the Moon by China’s Chang’e-4 mission.
Chang'e-4 captured by a camera onboard the Yutu 2 rover. Image: China Lunar Exploration Program
One day after China announced it grew the first plants on the Moon, the fledgling plants have been pronounced dead. Rest in peace, lunar sprouts.
On Tuesday, China's space program said that cotton seeds had germinated in a biosphere carried to the Moon by the nation’s Chang’e-4 lunar lander. By Wednesday, mission leads had broken the news that the plants perished as the lunar night fell over the probe’s landing site.
The Sunday arrival of the lunar night, which lasts 14 days, deprived the plants of sunlight. During a lunar night, temperatures can plummet as low as −170°C (−274°F). Meanwhile, daytime temperatures on the Moon can reach a sweltering 127°C (260°F). These massive fluctuations are one of the main obstacles encountered by lunar explorers.
The remaining seeds and fruit fly eggs contained in the mission’s biosphere are not likely to be viable after two weeks of light deprivation and freezing temperatures. According to China’s National Space Administration, they will decompose and remain sealed to avoid contaminating the lunar surface.
Chang’e-4 went into sleep mode on Sunday to prepare for the harsh night. The lander will rely on a radioisotope heat unit (RHU) to stay warm until sunlight returns in late January. The mission’s rover Yutu 2, which rolled off a ramp to the lunar surface on January 3, is also dependent on an RHU during the cold spell.
Chang’e-4 is the first spacecraft ever to land on the far side of the Moon, which is commonly mistaken for the “dark” side of the Moon. Though the far side is always angled away from Earth, it is not always angled away from the Sun. Both lunar faces experience roughly 14 days of daylight and 14 days of darkness in a regular lunar cycle.
Chang-e-4’s biosphere may have only survived for a brief week, but it still made history as the first garden planted at the surface of an alien world.
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