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China's moon lander sprouted a plant, but now it's dead

The Chang'e 4 lander's biosphere habitat hosted a short-lived cotton-growing experiment.

A cotton seedling growing in a biosphere habitat.

CNSA/Chongqing University

There once was a miniature garden growing on the far side of the moon.

The China National Space Agency's Chang'e 4 lander is exploring the mysterious side of our lunar neighbor that faces away from Earth. It also had some unusual guests on board and -- in a first for the moon -- one of them sprouted. 

Xinhua announced the sprout Tuesday and posted a series of progress images covering the course of nine days and showing a seedling reaching up inside the habitat. The experiment didn't last long. The same day, China's state-run Xinhua News declared that it's already ended.

Chang'e 4 touched down in early January.  

A team from Chongqing University in China developed a sealed biosphere habitat stocked with seeds, fruit fly eggs and yeast that it hoped would create a mini-ecosystem. The cotton seed was the only one to sprout. The experiment also contained potato and oilseed rape seeds.

Xinhua also posted a video showing a simulated seedling growth test on Earth, leading to some questions about the earlier images and whether they came from the moon experiment or its Earth counterpart. CNSA has yet to clarify the issue.

The seeds, flies and yeast were selected for their ability to withstand low gravity, strong radiation and wide temperature swings on the moon. 

The experiment's chief designer, Xie Gengxin of Chongqing University, told Xinhua that life inside the canister would not survive the lander's first lunar night, which started on Sunday. The moon's nighttime period lasts for about two Earth weeks.

The temperature plummets during the lunar night. NASA says the moon's temperatures near its equator can dive to -238 Fahrenheit (-150 Celsius). Chang'e 4 is located in the Von Karman crater in the moon's southern hemisphere. The lander is in sleep mode during the lunar night.

The Chang'e 4 lander is the first to visit the far side of Earth's natural satellite, sometimes called "the dark side of the moon." It successfully deployed the Jade Rabbit 2 rover and has now once again made history by sprouting the first seedling on the moon.

The ability to grow food on the moon would be important if humanity ever attempts to make good on the sci-fi dream of building a crewed lunar base. We could probably make some nice sweaters from moon-grown cotton.

The space agency is already looking ahead to its next lunar mission, Chang'e 5, which is designed to collect lunar samples and bring them back to Earth. It's also exploring options for a crewed moon mission.

First published Jan. 15, 8:19 a.m. PT.
Update at 2:28 p.m. PT: Adds that the plant died. 

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