China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft made history on 3rd Jan 2019 as it landed on the far side of the moon.
The spacecraft was the first to visit that part of the Moon, and its payload was a 2.6 kg (5.7 lb) mini-biosphere called the Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME).
The small cylindrical biosphere, hermetically sealed, is just 18 cm (7.1 in) long and 16 cm (6.3 in) in diameter.
The LME carried six lifeforms, and they were kept in predominantly Earth-like coditions except for lunar radiation and the micro-gravity of space.
The LME carried:
- cotton seeds
- potato seeds
- rape seeds
- fruit fly eggs
- Arabidopsis thaliana, a common, hardy weed
The work that China is undertaking is absolutely ground-breaking. They are the first country to conduct the a biological growth experiment on the Moon.
Only the cotton seeds produced positive results.
The experiment took place back in January 2019 when the craft landed on the Moon. The team in charge of the experiment only thought there was one leaf at the time but new data now indicates that there were two.
The 3D reconstruction below based on experimental data analysis and image processing, and clearly shows two leaves.
No other organism produced any results.
As the LME was cold and unheated, after the first lunar day 1(4 Earth days), the cotton sprout perished when temperatures dropped to minus 190 Celsius (-310 F.) The experiment continued however, focusing on the longevity of the LME itself.
Xie Gengxin, head researcher of the advanced Technology Research Institute at Chongqing University stated that during the planning stage of the experiment, researchers toyed with the idea of sending a small tortoise to the Moon, but mission constraints along with animal welfare regulations prevented it.
In an interview with IEEE Spectrum Xie said:
“The weight of the Chang’e-4 probe demanded that the weight [of the experiment] can’t exceed three kilograms.”
Any animal, let alone a tortoise, wouldn’t have had such an enjoyable trip. The temperature itself would have been enough to kill any animal and the oxygen would’ve depleted in about 20 days.
Tortoises have actually been to space before. Two tortoises flew on the Soviet Union’s Zond 5 mission in 1968 along with fruit flies and plants. (The turtles were deprived of food as a condition of the experiment, and they suffering from starvation when they returned to Earth, but they were alive.)
So although the Zond 5 mission was the first to carry any Earth residing animal (other than astronauts, of course.) beyond Earth’s orbit, the Chang’e-4 mission was the first to carry some to the Moon. And it certainly won’t be China’s last.
Xie and his team of researchers are readying themselves for their next moon mission and hope to send up more lifeforms. One stumbling block is the payload weight limitations. If they are increased, the mission will allow for a larger payload and the team say they plan to send more complex life forms, but as yet they haven’t specified what they’ll be.
The Chinese space agency is already planning the Chang’e-6 mission to the Moon, to launch at some point in the mid-2020s.
China invited international partners to join them in the project in 2018 after allowing an additional 10 kg of scientific payload for the mission. Chang’e-6 is the backup mission to Chang’e-5, which will be China’s first sample-return mission.
Similar lunar biological experiments are also planned by other major space agencies such as the United States, Russia, India, the European Space Agency, and Japan and private companies are also interested.
With highly anticipated long-duration visits to the Moon planned for the future, scientists will keep on focusing on how organisms respond to that environment.
Featured Image – (Chongqing University/Victor Tangermann)