China's National Space Administration has confirmed that a number of seeds officially sprouted on the moon, and despite those plants soon succumbing to extreme temperatures, scientists have concluded that this experiment is a huge step towards sustainable space exploration.
The Chinese Chang'e 4 mission, which landed on the far side of the moon at the beginning of this year, was carrying seeds aboard so that scientists could see if it was truly possible to grow plants on the moon. And if these positive results direct from the moon itself are any indication, it looks there could very well be a future for self-sustaining space travel.
China organized the very first mission to land on, as well as explore, the dark side of the moon which faces away from our planet. Their spacecraft was mainly carrying instruments that would enable it to analyze all of the geology of the region and find out whether that side of the moon has any valuable resources. However, the spacecraft also contained some planted seeds, which were due to sprout when the craft finally landed on the moon.
In the past, people have sent seeds to the International Space Station, so growing plants in space is certainly not a new concept. However, this is the first time such a phenomenon has happened on the moon. This type of research is necessary for scientists to learn whether or not plants can successfully be grown on the moon. Such an ability could be immensely useful for any long term missions in space, such as a trip to Mars which would take about two and a half years to complete.
If astronauts can grow and harvest their own food in space, much like what Matt Damon did with potatoes in his film The Martian, it would mean a reduced overall cost for space travel and space exploration. This ability would also reduce the need for astronauts to come back down to Earth in order to gather more food supplies.
The Chinese Moon Lander had some soil that contained potato and cotton seeds, along with yeast and some fruit fly eggs, which were all placed in a sealed container on the spacecraft. These crops attempted to make their own mini biosphere, which is a completely artificial and self-sustaining environment.
With this experiment, scientists were able to test the respiration and the photosynthesis processes in these living organisms. The plants even had their own supply of nutrients along with air and water in order to help them grow. The only potential issue they faced proved to ultimately be the plants' downfall. That is, the unfavorable temperatures found on the lunar surface. In total, the plants lasted for just a few days before succumbing to the frigid nighttime temperatures.
Despite the short lifespan of these historic plants, this endeavor is still certainly considered a success and proves the possibility for a sustainable existence in space. Though they didn't last very long, these seeds hold the incredible distinction of being responsible for the first instances of plant growth on the moon.