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China science

China’s first lunar leaf dies after Chang’e scientists forced to cut power to stop battery running low

  • Cotton seed that became first plant to come to life on the surface of the moon dies after being exposed to far side’s extreme temperatures
  • Lander did not carry any spare batteries, so power to biosphere had to be cut off
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2019, 7:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2019, 6:51am

China’s dream of a moon harvest has died young. Just two days after they announced that plant shoots had to come to life on the moon, the Chang’e team said a lack of battery capacity meant they had been forced to cut off the power supply that kept them alive.

The decision proved fatal for the cotton seeds that produced the “first leaf” on the moon after they were exposed to temperatures of 120 Celsius (250F) by day and minus 170 Celusis by night.

The extreme conditions on the far side of the moon also killed three other plant seeds, yeast and fruit fly eggs that had been carried inside the lunar lander’s biosphere.

On Tuesday the team behind the mission announced the success of the first ever biology experiment to be conducted on the moon with the release of pictures of a sprouting cotton seed inside the biosphere.

Chinese lunar lander’s cotton seeds spring to life on far side of the moon

The Chang’e probe, carrying the seeds and eggs in an airtight aluminium cylinder, touched down on the far side of the moon on January 3, but the team did not say when the seeds had started to germinate.

However, the researchers would have known that any success would prove fleeting.

The only battery available in the spacecraft, a solar cell, could not afford to keep the temperature inside the biosphere under control and the plants were doomed to die once the temperatures on the moon went beyond what life on Earth could endure.

“Because of the weight limit of the Chang’e launch, we were unable to bring a battery to the moon,” Liu Hanlong director of the experiment and vice-president of Chongqing University in southwest China, told Inkstone, a sister publication of the South China Morning Post.

It was not clear why additional batteries were not carried on the lander if the survival of the plants on the moon depended on battery-powered temperature control.

“Without temperature control, the plants and animals would not survive,” said Liu.

The mini ecosystem contained in the cylinder also included rapeseed and potato seeds, which had also sprouted, and these are certain to have met the same fate as the cotton sprout once the power went out.

It was not clear how long any of the seeds had survived.

The Chinese public, however, seemed far from discouraged by the news judging by the reaction on social media.

Despite comments expressing surprise at the lack of sufficient battery power to carry on the experiment, most posts on the social media network Weibo were overwhelmingly positive.

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“What a pity, but we should not give up. We should keep trying,” wrote one Weibo user. “Eventually we will grow a complete plant [on the moon] in the future,” read another post.

Chinese researchers shared their optimism, saying the data they had obtained from the sprouting, however short, would provide them with valuable information onto how to grow crops under low-gravity, high-radiation conditions – an insight which might one day prove invaluable in sustaining a manned base in space or even on the surface of the moon.

“We have given consideration to future survival in space. Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base,” Liu told a press conference on Tuesday.