Thanks, moon: Inspirational Chinese lunar cotton freezes and dies

17 Jan 2019

Image: © helen_f/

Almost as quickly as the world celebrated the first plant grown on the moon, news came through that it couldn’t survive a lunar night.

Just a matter of days ago, researchers from Chongqing University in China, who designed the first greenhouse in a can for the moon on board the Chang’e-4 lander, announced to the world that a cotton plant had sprouted.

This announcement was historic given that it was the first plant ever grown on the moon’s surface. Overall, it was still a muted celebration as the cotton plant grew a little more stunted than its Earthly siblings, and the rest of the other crops on board failed to sprout at all.

Now though, sadly, the university has announced that the solitary shoot has withered and died, blasted by the intense freezing temperatures of a lunar night. The English-language Chinese news site GB Times reported that the project leader, Prof Liu Hanlong, said the temperature inside the plant’s chamber plummeted to -52 degrees Celsius as night fell, and continued to fall to as low as -180 degrees Celsius.

With no battery to power a heating mechanism within the canister, the plant was left defenceless and inevitably perished. With the return of lunar daytime, the temperature within the canister will eventually rise, resulting in the cotton sprout and any of the other plant seeds within it decomposing.

The China National Space Administration stressed that while this decomposing plant matter will remain on the moon, it is totally enclosed from the lunar surface, preventing any potential biological contamination of the moon.

‘It laid foundation and technological support for next step’

Xie Gengxin, the chief designer of the experiment, was optimistic about future attempts to grow plant life on the moon, especially potatoes, which he described as a potential “major source of food for future space travellers”.

He added: “Although it is a biological payload for popularising science, it laid a foundation and technological support for our next step – that is, to build a lunar base for living.”

In total, the lunar plant experiment ran for a total of 212.75 hours, so at least it can be a starting point for future crop growth experiments.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic