China’s Chang’e 4 lunar probe is expected to conduct many groundbreaking tasks after its launch later this year, including the first biological experiment on the lifeless lunar surface, after making a soft landing on the far side.
The probe will carry a tin containing the seeds of potatoes and arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard－and probably some silkworm eggs－to see how they respond in the “lunar mini biosphere”. Chongqing University led the project with 27 other Chinese universities participating.
The cylindrical tin, made from a special aluminum alloy, is 18 centimeters tall and has a diameter of 16 cm. The tin will also contain water, a nutrient solution, air and equipment such as a small camera and data transmission system.
Researchers hope the seeds will grow and blossom on the moon, with the process captured on camera and transmitted to Earth.
Although astronauts have cultivated plants on the International Space Station, and rice and arabidopsis have been grown in the Tiangong 2 space lab, those experiments were conducted in low-Earth orbit.
Liu Hanlong, chief director of the experiment and vice-president of Chongqing University, said that since the moon has no atmosphere, its temperatures range from below -100 C to more than 100 C.
“We have to keep the temperature in the mini biosphere within a range from 1 C to 30 C, and properly control the humidity and nutrition. We will use a tube to direct the natural light on the surface of moon into the tin to make the plants grow,” said Xie Gengxin, the experiment’s chief designer.
“We want to study the respiration of the seeds and photosynthesis on the moon,” Liu said.
“Why potato and arabidopsis? Because the growth period of arabidopsis is short and convenient to observe. And potatoes could become a major food source for future space travelers.”
Members of the public, especially young people, are being encouraged to participate in the Chang’e 4 mission. The China National Space Administration launched a contest for students across China in 2016, collecting ideas on the design of the craft’s payload.
The lunar mini biosphere experiment was selected from more than 200 submissions, according to the CNSA.
Tidal forces on Earth have slowed the moon’s rotation to the point where the same side always faces the earth, a phenomenon called tidal locking. The other side is not visible from the earth.
With its special environment and complex geological history, the far side of the moon is a hot spot for scientific and space exploration. However, landing and roving there requires a relay satellite to transmit signals.
The Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the CNSA has invited the public to write down their hopes for lunar and space exploration, and those hopes and the names of participants will be carried by the relay satellite into deep space. More than 100,000 people have taken part, the center said.