ABOVE: A cotton sprout grows in a container of soil on the moon.

Update (January 16, 2019): The cotton sprouts growing on the moon have died. They did not survive lunar night, which can reach -173 °Celsius. Mission planners didn't expect the plants to live, Newsweek reports.

There’s cotton growing on the far side of the moon—the first time plants have sprouted there. On January 3, a lunar lander called Chang’e-4 touched down on the moon, deploying a rover to explore lunar terrain. The lander also carries a container filled with soil and cotton and potato seeds, and the cotton seeds are now sprouting, an image released by the China National Space Administration today (January 15) shows. The image was published on the People’s Daily, China twitter feed, which is run by the country’s state-owned media group.

“Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment...

Researchers have been working on several projects to grow plants on the international space station as a step toward understanding how they would grow on the moon. This is the first time that scientists have gotten seeds to sprout there. The soil and seeds are secured in an airtight container designed to maintain a temperature of 25 °C. There’s also rapeseed, Arabidopsis, and potato in the soil in the container, along with yeast and fruit fly eggs. The organisms have access to air, water, and other nutrients to help them grow and act as a biosphere, with the yeast decomposing the dead plants and fly waste while serving as food for the flies.

The sprouting is “good news,” Fred Watson, the Australian Astronomical Observatory’s astronomer-at-large, tells the BBC. “It suggests that there might not be insurmountable problems for astronauts in [the] future trying to grow their own crops on the moon in a controlled environment.” 

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?