What do you picture when you think about the Moon? A big chunk of rock, orbiting Earth, devoid of oxygen and therefore life? Well, that’s not exactly accurate, because life could flourish on that chunk of rock – and I don’t mean little green people running around with big, black eyes and bald, artichoke-shaped heads…
Potatoes on the Moon: where it all began
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has seen unmanned spacecrafts sent into orbit around, and landing on, the Moon since 2007. The spacecrafts, named Chang’e (after the Chinese Moon goddess) followed by their corresponding number, have made a series of ‘firsts’ for humankind, including Chang’e-4 being the first spacecraft to land on the dark side of the Moon.
However, a possibly more exciting feat by this same spacecraft is one that could change our future entirely.
When it was flung into space for its 20-day trip to the Moon, Chang’e-4 was equipped with soil containing cotton and potato seeds, yeast and fruit fly eggs. The seeds were made dormant for the journey, but they began growing on the lander inside a sealed container. The idea was to create an artificial biosphere.
This is actually the first time biological matter has been grown on the Moon. Plants have previously been grown on the International Space Station, which is 250 miles from Earth (the Moon is 250,000 miles away). Crazy, huh?
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How do you grow potatoes on the Moon?
The seedlings were planted in an 18cm tall, 3kg canister designed by 28 different Chinese universities. Obviously, there’s not much of an atmosphere on the Moon, and what little atmosphere there is, is inhospitable for terrestrial plants. Therefore, the universities designed the canister to provide a supply of air, water and nutrients to help the plants grow.
However, the Moon’s temperature can swing from -173C to over 100C, freezing and frying lifeforms without proper protection. So all those nutrients could be completely useless and the plants, yeast and eggs could all die if the canister couldn’t cope with the climate.
Sadly, that’s exactly what happened with this experiment, as reported by Chinese news website GBTimes. Once the lunar night set in, the temperature fell to around -52C. And since the lander is powered by solar energy (and lunar nights last around two weeks) the canister powered out, leaving any life inside the container unprotected from the harsh cold.
The plants did survive for just over a week, however, which could show promise for future experiments.
So, why grow potatoes on the Moon?
Well, this opens the gate for long-term space missions, like manned trips to Mars. If astronauts want to grow their own crops (think Matt Damon in The Martian, but more controlled), then it might not be as impossible as we once thought!
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook. You can also listen to The Plant Based Podcast with Michael and co-host Ellen-Mary on iTunes, Spotify and Google.