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


"A cotton seed brought to the moon by China's Chang'e 4 probe has sprouted ... marking the completion of humankind's first biological experiment on the moon", it tweeted.

The officials discussed future lunar exploration plans less than two weeks after the Chang'e-4 lander's history-making touchdown, and only a few days after China's space agency released video of the lander's descent and lunar surface activities.

The cotton along with potato seed, fruit-fly eggs, arabidopsis - a small, flowering plant of the mustard family - and yeast landed on the moon January 3 aboard the Chang'e 4 lander. Through it, the researchers hope to learn more about how plants develop in the low gravity, high radiation and wildly fluctuating temperatures of the lunar environment. Some don't know that the lander had a payload of six organisms on board to test out on the lunar far side.

China is now the third country to establish a presence on the moon after the United States and Russian Federation.

While many lauded the achievement, many others questioned the experiment.

"We will make the decision according to the performance of Chang'e-5", said Wu Yanhua, deputy head of the CNSA, who confirmed the launch of another lunar exploration (Chang'e 5), at the end of this year. Yet, it seems China National Space Administration's probe Chang'e 4 had a special mission upon touch down. China aims to launch Chang'e 5 later this year.

Scientists intend it to gather as much data as possible from the relatively unexplored side of the moon.

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The plants grow inside a 18cm tall canister, designed by 28 Chinese universities, that has an air supply, water and nutrients.

The plants produce oxygen and food by photosynthesis and sustain the fruit flies, he said.

China's successful lunar germination suggests "there might not be insurmountable problems for astronauts in future trying to grow their own crops on the moon in a controlled environment", Fred Watson, an astronomer-at-large with Australian Astronomical Observatory, told the BBC.

Li noted that all foreign counterparts are welcome to participate in its future lunar and deep space missions, especially the lunar probe which plans to land on the south pole of the moon.

Since the landing, the team at the China National Space Administration has been putting rover Yutu 2 and the lander through their paces. To get around the challenge of communications, China put a satellite in lunar orbit to deliver signals to and from the lander.

"The thicker dust shows that the lunar regolith in the region has undergone longer space weathering, which also gives strong evidence of the region being older", Li said.

Wu also confirmed that China is planning to send a robotic probe to Mars in the 2020 time frame.