China Installed a Small Farm on the Moon in 2019. What Were the Results?

On January 3, 2019, China's Chang'e-4 lander landed on the far side of the Moon and sent out the Yutu rover. Find out more here!

plantation on the moon
A 3D reconstruction, based on image processing and data analysis, shows two cotton leaves grown in the Chang'e-4 landing module on the far side of the Moon. Credits: Chongqing University.

In addition to its many instruments, the rover, which landed on the far side of the Moon, carried an important scientific experiment known as Biological Experiment Payload (BEP). During the next eight days, this charge led to a vital experience in which he tried to grow the first plants on the Moon.

The load included cotton seeds, potatoes, arabidopsis and rapeseed, along with fly eggs, yeast and 18 ml of water, which was maintained at a constant atmospheric pressure.

The results of this experiment will help inform the future Bioregenerative Life Support System (BLSS), which will prove vital for habitats and missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).

A team of scientists from China has published a study that analyzes the experience, its results and its potential implications for future missions to the Moon, Mars and other places in deep space.

According to his conclusions, the experience has shown that plants can grow on the Moon despite intense radiation, low gravity and prolonged intense light.

The results of their analyses were shared in two articles published on June 20 in Microgravity Science and Technology and on October 17 in the Astronautica Minutes, respectively.

Plants in space!

The cultivation of plants in lunar, Martian and space habitats is essential for many reasons. In addition to providing a source of nutrition and reducing the need for refueling missions, they will also remove carbon dioxide and provide fresh oxygen, help recycle waste and contribute to the sense of well-being of crews.

And while conventional Environmental Control and Life Support (ECLSS) systems are based on mechanical components that eventually break down and need to be replaced, a bioregenerative system can replenish itself over time.

This makes BLSS technology ideal for deep space missions, where refueling opportunities will be few and far away. For years, astronauts have conducted experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) involving the growth of plants and algae - such as the Plant Production System (Veggie), the Passive Orbital Nutrient Supply System (PONDS), the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) and the Plant Habitat Avionics Real-Time Manager (PHARM).

"The need for in situ use of resources for the production of oxygen and food is particularly important and is the first step to establishing a basis for survival, so the experiments of planting plants in an environment outside the Earth are very important." - Xie Gengxin, professor of environmental engineering at Chongqing University and chief designer of BEP.

However, it is still uncertain how the natural environment of extraterrestrial bodies will affect the functioning of a BLSS.

Results of the experience

The total execution time of the experiment was nine days, instead of the planned 100. But, as Xie indicated, valuable information was obtained. "Although our plants can grow in the natural conditions of sunlight and radiation from the Moon, the safety of these plants has not been evaluated. To know if they are healthy or not, more research is needed. (...) Our first biological experiments on the Moon for Humanity demonstrate that it is possible to build a regenerative ecosystem on the Moon to establish a human base," said Xie.

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Future missions and objectives

In less than two years, NASA plans to place astronauts on the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. China hopes to do the same, sending the first taikonauts to the southern polar region of the Moon by 2030.

The long-term objectives of these and other agencies - such as ESA, Roscosmos and the Indian Space Investigation Organization (ISRO) - are nothing less than to establish a permanent human post on the Moon that allows research, exploration, international cooperation and deep space missions.

A fundamental aspect of this project will be the use of local resources to meet the needs of crews. One of the best ways to ensure a constant supply of food, breathable air and health (physical and mental) of the crew is to build habitats that can accommodate greenhouses and experiments with plants.

In short, astronauts must bring with them elements of the terrestrial biosphere to live, work and thrive in extraterrestrial environments. The lessons of this investigation will help prepare the way for all who follow it.