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The first Moon seedling from Chinese lander hasn’t survived

The first cotton seedling grown on the moon which has unfortunately not survived. Credits : Chongqing University

The Chinese National Space Administration announced a few days ago that they had managed to grow a cotton seedling on the Moon.  The unprecedented achievement was unfortunately short lived. The small germinated plant didn’t manage to survive the night and the glacial temperatures.

China which successfully landed a lander and rover on the far side of the moon at the start of the year announced an other historic first a few days ago.  They unveiled a young cotton seedling that they had managed to grow.  After having survived a mammoth space journey this little seed seemed to take advantage of the weak lunar gravity and the extraterrestrial rays.  However the amazing feat did not last long.  During a press conference on the 16th January, the Head of Operations Liu Hanlong explained the plant did not manage to survive the night.

On the far side of the moon nights are by no means mild.  Once the sun set, temperatures supposedly dropped to minus 52 °C in the mini-biosphere before continuing to drop further.  The lander has no mechanism on board to maintain an ambient temperature which meant the seedling was unable to survive.  Other seedlings risk the same fate. Why is this the case?  It seems the lander was not prepared with appropriate equipment to help the seedlings grow in cold temperatures.

Lune Chine
A cotton seed started to germinate on the moon a few days ago, making a historic first.  Unfortunately the seedling did not survive. Credits : National Chinese Space Administration

Contrasting temperatures too severe

On Earth, when the days start to shorten and temperatures drop, plants seem to feel the “winds turning” and give their cells sugar and other chemical products.  This helps to lower the freezing point of the water found inside the cells.  However if ice crystals start to form these cells can be ripped apart.  Other physiological and metabolic changes can also take place so plants can tolerate the cold. However progressive environmental changes on Earth allow plants to prepare for freezing temperatures.

This is why sudden frosts can be fatal. What is more cotton seeds are not particularly well adapted to the cold.  Although temperatures on the Moon’s surface can reach 100° C during the day, these temperatures can rapidly plunge to minus 173° C at night.  The massive contrast in temperatures were probably too severe for the young seedling to survive.  Ice crystals probably formed which tore apart the plant from the inside.

This young seedling will now slowly decompose. As it is in a sealed environment it will not contaminate the lunar environment.  While none of the other seedlings seem to have germinated, it also remains unclear whether the fly eggs that were taken in a sealed container have hatched.


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