On the Far Side of the Moon, Cotton Grows

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China's ambitions for space and lunar exploration aren't limited to the current mission.

"In the past, we were always rushing to catch up to the advanced global standards" in space, said Wu Weiren, the chief designer of China's lunar exploration project.

"China, the United States, Russia and European nations among others are all exploring whether or not to build a base or research station on the moon", he said.

Officials at the briefing declined to give specific figures on the costs of the space program.

Weighing below three kilograms, the test payload includes six organisms including seeds of cotton, potatoes, Arabidopsis and rapeseeds, as well as fruit fly pupa and yeast.

Once Chang'e-4 touched down, the ground control center instructed the probe to water the seeds, Xinhua reported.

Cotton seeds have reportedly just sprouted in an experiment aboard China's Chang'e 4 Moon lander. But the closest that terrestrial vegetation has come to the moon before now was in 1971, when Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa carried hundreds of tree seeds to orbit the moon with him. Light was channeled into a tube in the canister, allowing a cotton seed to sprout.

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Scientists from Chongqing University - who designed the "mini lunar biosphere" experiment - sent an 18-centimetre bucket-like container holding air, water and soil. The greatest challenge according to Chinese scientists is the constant weather changes on the moon.

"It is the first technical demonstration that we can grow plants on another planetary body", he said. For example, potatoes serve as a good source and can make rapeseed oil which is similar to canola oil. By having a supply base on the moon, space travel to Mars and beyond could become easier.

China's successful lunar germination suggests "there might not be insurmountable problems for astronauts in future trying to grow their own crops on the moon in a controlled environment", Fred Watson, an astronomer-at-large with Australian Astronomical Observatory, told the BBC. It's likely in the future if all the environmental conditions are met.

Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the national space agency, speaks during a press conference held in Beijing, China, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

The Chang'e 4 is the first mission to land on and explore the Moon's far side, facing away from Earth. Put simply, it means that humans in the future might be able to establish a sustainable ecosystem on the Moon without having to exclusively rely upon replenishing supplies from trips back and forth between the Moon and Earth.

Chang'e 5 will lay the groundwork for further probes to be sent to the moon's south pole and possibly to return samples from the far side of the moon, Wu said.

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