China’s Chang’e-4 Mission Witnesses the First Seeds Germinate on Moon

Experimental cotton seeds carried to the moon as part of the Chang’e-4 mission have germinated, says China National Space Administration (CNSA)

China’s Chang’e-4 Mission Witnesses the First Seeds Germinate on Moon

Update: The lunar cottonseed sprouts died after mission scientists were forced to cut the power supply to the batteries that kept them alive.

The news came two days after it was announced that cottonseeds had sprouted on the moon.

The extreme conditions on the inhospitable far side of the moon also caused other seeds, yeast and fruit fly eggs to die too.

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China’s Chang’e-4 mission has literally sown the first seeds for future lunar living by managing to sprout cotton seeds it carried with it to the far side of the moon.

Images beamed back by Chang’e-4 and released by the Advanced Technology Research Institute at Chongqing University clearly show small green shoots that have sprouted through a grid-like structure inside a canister in which the experimental cotton seeds are housed.

Although the probe has also carried with it seeds for potato, rockcress, and rape plant, these were the only seeds that have sprouted so far; it remains to be seen when, or if, the others follow suit.

The lunar lander has also carried with it some experimental silkworm eggs, fruit fly pupae, and yeast.

While similar experiments have been successfully carried out on the International Space Station, this is the first time seed of any kind has sprouted on the moon, which is being seen as a significant step towards sustaining extended space missions where the ability to grow plants will come in super handy.

“This is the first time humans have done biological growth experiments on the lunar surface,” said Xie Gengxin, who led the design of the experiment, on Tuesday (Jan 15).

Earlier this year, in a never-before-attempted mission, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) soft-landed a robotic probe, the Chang’e-4, in a crater within a crater on the far side of the moon.

The spacecraft made a picture-perfect touch down in the Von Karman Crater – a huge southern hemisphere impact crater, measuring about 112 miles (180 kilometers) in diameter, located within an even bigger impact crater – the 1,600-mile (2,500-kilometer) South Pole-Aitken Basin.

Although Chang’e-4 had made it to the Moon’s orbit four days after launch, it began its final descent about three weeks later from an elliptical landing orbit almost 10 miles above the lunar surface.

When it was 100 meters above the landing site, the spacecraft briefly paused in its vertical approach, hovering over the landing zone to survey the topography below and selecting a relatively flat spot before resuming its descent.

The impeccable touchdown was appreciated by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who congratulated the mission team on “a successful landing on the far side of the Moon,” calling it “a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment.”

The final approach phases were achieved autonomously by the spacecraft, as remote intervention from mission control in China was not possible during this stage of the mission.

“This is a great technological accomplishment as it was out of sight of Earth, so signals are relayed back by their orbiter, and most of the landing was actually done autonomously in difficult terrain,” Prof. Andrew Coates of UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) in Surrey, England, was quoted by The Guardian as saying.

“The landing was almost vertical because of the surrounding hills,” Prof. Coates added.

Soon after landing, Chang’e-4 deployed its lunar rover named “Yutu-2” – Chinese for “Jade Rabbit-2” – which sent back the first ever close-up shot of the mysterious far side of our only known natural satellite.

The Chinese space agency also shared an image of Yutu-2’s deployment, along with pre- and post-landing images, all of which were relayed through the Queqiao (Magpie Bridge) satellite orbiting at the Earth-moon Lagrange point 2 beyond the far side.

Queqiao was, in fact, launched in May last year for the exact same purpose because direct communication with the far side of the Moon is impossible, what with the Moon’s entire mass blocking the exchange of direct signals to and from Earth.

While humans have glimpsed, and even mapped, the lunar far side in the past – thanks to NASA’s Apollo 8 mission half a century ago and the Soviet Luna 3 mission a decade prior to that – no spacecraft had ever touched down on the untrodden ground, until Chang’e-4 changed all of that.

In the past decade. or so, China has made rapid advances in space technology and is the only country in the world to have soft-landed a space vehicle on the Moon since the then Soviet Union’s 1976 Luna 24 mission to retrieve samples Moon soil.

China achieved the feat in December 2013, landing its Chang’e-3 rover on Mare Imbrium –  a vast lava plain within the Imbrium Basin on the near side of the Moon, becoming only the third country after Russia and the United States to achieve a lunar touchdown.

Encouraged by Chang’e-3’s success, China stepped up its lunar program for an even bigger mission, the first phase of which came to a successful conclusion with Chang’e-4’s Thursday landing on the targeted far side.

Comprising of a lander and a small rover, Chang’e-4 was, in fact, a backup spacecraft manufactured with the Chang’e-3.

It was only in 2015 that China announced its plans of using the spare space vehicle to launch something so complex that it had never been attempted before.

The nearly four-metric-ton Chang’e-4 has carried with it eight scientific instruments – four each on the lander and the rover.

The lander is equipped with the Landing Camera (LCAM), the Terrain Camera (TCAM), the Low-Frequency Spectrometer (LFS), and the Lunar Lander Neutrons and Dosimetry (LND).

And, the rover is carrying the Panoramic Camera (PCAM), the Lunar Penetrating Radar (LPR), the Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS), and the Advanced Small Analyzer for Neutrals (ASAN).

As mentioned, Chang’e-4 also carried with it a small experimental payload of silkworm eggs, fruit fly pupae and yeast, in addition to seeds for potato, rockcress, rape plant, and cotton to check how they develop in the inhospitable lunar environment.

The huge amounts of scientific data and information that the spacecraft’s state-of-the-art instruments are capable of garnering will go a long way in helping researchers understand why the far side of our Moon is so vastly different from the side we’re familiar with.

For example, the lunar terrain on the tidally-locked near side is largely dark basaltic plains called the lunar maria, while the far side is mountainous and rugged and, hence, difficult to land anything on.

Since the Moon takes the same amount of time (28 days) to orbit our planet as it does to rotate once on its axis, we always get to see the same side of the natural satellite, with the opposite side forever hidden from view.

“Since the far side of the moon is shielded from electromagnetic interference from the Earth, it’s an ideal place to research the space environment and solar bursts, and the probe can ‘listen’ to the deeper reaches of the cosmos,” CNSA’s deputy director for the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center, Tongjie Liu, was quoted by CNN as saying.

China’s next lunar run will be the Chang’e-5 sample-retrieval mission, which CNSA started preparing for in October 2014 when it launched the Chang’e-5T1 mission to run atmospheric re-entry tests on the -4Chang’e-5 capsule.

“Experts are still discussing and verifying the feasibility of subsequent projects, but it’s confirmed that there will be another three missions after Chang’e 5,” said Wu Yanhua, deputy head of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), at a press conference.

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