A picture of a seedling (left) growing out of a frame, which has melted at centre to right.

Credit: Wang Quanchao/Xinhua via Zuma

China’s Chang’e-4 mission has become the first ever to grow plants on the Moon. The lander sent back images of a cotton seed sprouting in a mini-biosphere experiment, a feat announced on 15 January.

The pioneering experiment is one of several being carried out by Chang’e-4, a mission that is quickly racking up lunar firsts. On 3 January, it became first craft to make a soft landing on the far side of the Moon.

A small, sealed container carrying the seeds also contained nutrients, air and water, as well as yeast and fruit-fly eggs. The idea is for the plants to try and form a mini biosphere — an artificial, self-sustaining environment.

“It will provide a basis for world scientists to study the biological growth and photosynthesis under the conditions of low gravity, wide temperature difference and long illumination of the moon,” says Xie Genxin, a space environment scientist at Chongqing University and the chief designer of the biological experiment payload on the Chang’e mission.

Chang’e-4 is also testing whether potato and thale-cress (Arabidopsis) seeds sprout and photosynthesize in a sealed, climate-controlled environment in the low gravity on the lunar surface.

Xie says that the experiments will provide a basis for research into culturing plants on the Moon and could inspire the construction of future lunar bases for humans.

“When we take the step towards long-term human habitation on the Moon or Mars, we will need greenhouse facilities to support us, and will need to live in something like a biosphere,” Anna-Lisa Paul, a horticultural scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, told Nature ahead of the launch.

Space salad

The experiments also seek to verify previous studies done on the International Space Station that found that potato and thale-cress can grow normally in controlled ecosystems in lower gravity than on Earth, but not in gravity as low as on the Moon.

The Chang’e-4 lander also sent panoramic images of the far side of the Moon on 11 January. Its six-wheeled rover Yutu2 had woken up on 10 January, after a ‘nap’ scheduled to avoid overheating during the hottest period of the lunar day; the rover and Chang’e-4 took pictures and videos of each other.

On 14 January, the China National Space Administration announced plans for at least three further lunar missions. The first, Chang’e-5, will launch before the end of the year, aiming to collect a sample of lunar material and return it to Earth.