back to article China's really cotton'd on to this whole Moon exploration thing: First seed sprouts in lunar lander biosphere

A tiny cotton seed brought to the Moon's surface by a Chinese spacecraft has apparently just sprouted, quite possibly making it the first Earth-based plant to start growing on our rocky satellite. Well, growing in a box very close to the surface, anyway. The People’s Daily, the official state media for China’s ruling …

  1. jake Silver badge

    “humankind's first biological experiment on the Moon.”

    I think a couple blokes with Apollo patches beat China to the punch half a century ago. Those two's biological processes were studied up one side and down the other.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: “humankind's first biological experiment on the Moon.”

      Even if that did happen I'm pretty sure nothing got fertilised as a result.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: “humankind's first biological experiment on the Moon.”

        "Even if that did happen"

        This isn't that corner of youtube. We do science here.

        "I'm pretty sure nothing got fertilised as a result."

        There is plenty of flora and fauna in the human gut.

  2. Alan J. Wylie

    One giant leaf for mankind.

    1. phuzz Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Congratulations, you beat the Grunardid to that one.

    2. Steve K Silver badge


      "My God it's full of flies"

      (Now X-Flies as they are deep-frozen)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just a PR stunt

    They should show that experiment is sustainable for months, if not years, and with full grown plants. Which I guess is more than the lander expected life - and available space (and where's the water from?). Having a seed sprout in a sealed box is not that difficult, even if the box is on the Moon.

    1. Neil Hawkins
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Just a PR stunt

      "... even if the box is on the Moon."

      Is it? I want proof!

      1. OssianScotland Silver badge

        Re: Just a PR stunt

        You'll get your proof once we've done a bit more with the CGI

    2. FIA

      Re: Just a PR stunt

      ...Having a seed sprout in a sealed box is not that difficult, even if the box is on the Moon.

      I'm not sure it's that easy is it?

      The seed and box have to survive the journey (so lots of vibration and high g), and then deal with ambient temp swings between -170 and +100 degrees C. It's not just a shoe box with some cling film wrapped round.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Just a PR stunt

        "ambient temp swings"

        Small point of order here, there is no "ambient temp" on the moon. It's surface temperature and vacuum. As such, an object will definitely get warmer in the lunar day, but a well designed one doesn't necessarily need to radiate that heat away at night.

    3. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: Just a PR stunt

      Not a stunt, Working out the problems involved with Off-Earth farming is an important logical step in space exploration.

      There are a lot of previously 'Sci-fi' scenarios that are now not only technically feasible but are rapidly approaching being financially feasible as well. We have landed probes on comets & asteroids > We can land a robotic production facility on them.

      Launch cost per Kg is dropping rapidly, Falcon Heavy (starting around the $90M/launch mark) can lift 60 tonnes to LEO & 16 tonnes to Mars. One of the next flights is planned to deliver multiple satellites into different orbits.

      I doubt there's anything to stop someone eventually turning up and building a lunar farmstead or colony. It certainly can't stop a totally off-planet state emerging over time and people do have the habit of moving to wherever they can get with the hope of a better life eventually. In the 19th century selling everything and buying a one-way ticket to the Americas moved 10s of millions across the Atlantic on ships built purely to satisfy the demand.

      The Moon is only a few days away and presents a far better starting location for any off planet activity.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Just a PR stunt

        "In the 19th century selling everything and buying a one-way ticket to the Americas moved 10s of millions across the Atlantic on ships built purely to satisfy the demand."

        Although I agree with you in principle, setting sail across the oceans on Earth is a bit easier. You can breath all the way and know you can carry on breathing when you get there. There's also a high probability you can live off the land when you get there with minimal technology.

    4. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge

      Re: Just a PR stunt

      Having a seed sprout in a sealed box is not that difficult, even if the box is on the Moon.

      That may or may not be true: root developpment is in part driven by gravity, in different ways depending on the species. Even only a couple weeks of observations could provide valuable data.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Just a PR stunt

      Was landing on the far side of the Moon just a PR stunt also Not difficult enough for you?. If so then how does this differ from the Apollo landings?

  4. bartsmit

    Andy Weir's dream come true

    In your face, Neil Armstrong!

  5. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Revenge of The Fly.

    Be afraid.

    Be. Very. Afraid.

  6. ColonelDare

    Life Imitates Art?

    So WALL-E and friends can now turn the moon to paradise over the few generations....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Life Imitates Art?

      They went to the moon in that film? What were you watching?

      1. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

        Re: Life Imitates Art?

        '... admittedly I may have dozed off part way through'

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I see where this is going

    Slavery is legal on the moon.

  8. the Jim bloke Silver badge

    Useful research, even if it appears social-media / PR focused.

    less likely to horrify the general public than sending a dog or monkey up there and leaving it until it dies, although that is a valid step somewhere along the process. The important thing is to learn, and even -or especially- if(when) it fails

  9. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    The Tricky Part

    Whilst the seeds have to be kept fed and watered in an atmosphere, the trickiest part of this tricky stuff is the temperature control. The temperature variation between when the moon is sun facing and and non-sun facing is quite large (Several hundred degrees C)

    1. DJV Silver badge

      Re: The Tricky Part

      They just need to invent plants with legs* so they can keep walking towards the sunlight!

      (* just like in that documentary by John Wyndham).

    2. choleric

      Re: The Tricky Part

      In fact this was the real issue. It seems the temperature control failed and the seedling froze.

  10. Fred M

    First alien life?

    So, if it hatches, that fly will be the first thing to be born and life its whole (short) life on the moon. Does that make it the first alien lifeform? First contact has been made!

  11. William Towle

    Wait just...

    ...a cotton-pickin' moon unit

  12. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    I would like to see the aims of the experiment.

    I don't quite see where the experiment takes knowledge beyond current understanding.

    Germination and growth in a sealed, temperature controlled environment has been shown many times, including increased 'gravity' using slow centrifuges and on the ISS in micro gravity. Issues would be expected to arise when the gravity gets small and the plants get big, and not with the sealed growth environment itself. However gravity is still significant so I would not expect it to be a particular issue on the moon - at least in the early development phases - and, in any event, I don't believe the impact of a lower gravity on long term plant growth can be tested with the Chinese experiment.

    What I would suggest is a long term study with the system exposed to properly harsh conditions to simulate dehydration, water logging, freeze/thaw cycles, excess temperature and other harsh extremes - just deliver it to my mum, she'll kill it ...

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: I would like to see the aims of the experiment.

      I believe the aim is to see if a simple self-contained biosphere can work on the Moon.

    2. Brangdon

      Re: I would like to see the aims of the experiment.

      I mostly agree. A crucial area is how development in lunar gravity compares with development in Earth's gravity and micro-gravity. I'd expect it to be much closer to the former than the later. There are a lot of things that go wrong for humans in microgravity and I hope they don't also go wrong in 1/6th g. I don't know if this experiment can shed much light on this.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: I would like to see the aims of the experiment.

        I also mostly agree, but 1/6th G can be achieved in a centrifuge in a space station too. I suspect this was as much a PR thing as it was a case of, "we have a some more mass/space to allocate, what would be good to try out?"

    3. the Jim bloke Silver badge

      Re: I would like to see the aims of the experiment.

      Old school science.. try something, see if it works

      if it works, hooray, try something harder. (actually, try it again, several times, because being right is IMPORTANT)

      if it doesnt, figure out why the hell not.

      The location and media attention on the other hand, would be political grandstanding.

      Thats why the Yanks went to the moon, and if they have lost their mojo then its a good thing somebody else has taken up the job.

  13. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

    Breathe, breathe in the air

    Don't be afraid to care

    Leave but don't leave me

    Look around, choose your own ground

    For long you live and high you fly

    And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry

    And all your touch and all you see

    Is all your life will ever be

    1. I&I

      Run, Yutu (2), run

      (Then if it had dug “that hole” it could indeed “forget the sun” - temperature variations)


  14. Tigra 07 Silver badge

    Generic witty title...

    "The China National Space Administration (CNSA) stashed cotton, rape, potato and rockcress seeds aboard the Chang’e lander"

    I can only imagine the misunderstandings when we begin exporting rape across the galaxy... Also, why is the sprout covered in spooge in their photo? Did the astronauts get overexcited?

  15. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Why cotton ?

    Or did I miss a chunk somewhere.

    Was it a case of "why not ?" or are there specific reasons for choosing cotton over any other plant ?

    Either way, this seems another marmite science story. For myself it's fascinating. But there's a lot of people going "what's the point ?". Which (as always) rather misses the point of "science".

    1. Sleep deprived

      Re: Why cotton ?

      They couldn't find polyester seeds.

    2. jake Silver badge

      Re: Why cotton ?

      Because Redwood seeds had already been there?

      And back, I might add ...

  16. Unicornpiss Silver badge


    "..that the rapeseed could produce oil for astronauts, potatoes could feed them, and cotton could clothe them."

    And the fruit flies can annoy the crap out of them..

    This isn't groundbreaking in any way, as many biological experiments of greater complexity have been conducted on the ISS, Shuttle, MIR, and probably Skylab. But since the Chinese don't have a space station or orbiter (yet), I can see why they would want to try it. And I guess claiming to be the first to grow something on the moon is worth some props. What would be useful though would be to study the effects of solar and cosmic radiation on their progeny, but I doubt they'll live long enough for radiation to be a factor in any way.

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      Re: Biologicals

      Don't forget, the yeast can produce beer for them (at least if they bring some barley and hops along next time)

    2. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      Re: Biologicals

      We've grown something in micro-gravity, we've not grown things in lunar-gravity.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Biologicals

        Plants are quite slow to react, so you can simulate weak gravity by putting them on an inclined disc that rotates slowly ("clinostat"). If you did O-level biology you might remember experiments like that. So you can do a fairly good simulation of lunar conditions in a laboratory. Doing the experiment on the moon for real would then just be a check that the simulation was good enough. Probably the results will be as expected and not much will be learnt, but you might learn something if the experiment "fails".

        1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

          Re: Biologicals

          I'm young enough to have done GCSEs, and we didn't do that (although we did turn mung beans upside down after they'd sprouted).

          1. DJV Silver badge

            Re: Mung beans

            You cruel bastard - I will be reporting you to PETV!

    3. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Biologicals

      "the Chinese don't have a space station or orbiter"

      They have an orbiter called Shenzhou, which is somewhat of an advanced, enlarged, and modernised Soyuz.

      They also have a space station project. Their first station, Tiangong-1 was in orbit between 2011 and 2018 and was visited by two crews.

      The follow up, Tiangong-2, is currently orbiting, and they're now planning a much larger, modular, space station (think Mir but modern).

  17. adam 40 Bronze badge

    It won't grow for long though

    ... on the dark side of the Moon. You need sunlight, see?

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: It won't grow for long though

      Think you missed the joke icon...

      Unless you really think the "dark" side of the moon is actually dark. In moon context "dark" means unknown/unseen, not unlit.

      1. Unicornpiss Silver badge

        Re: It won't grow for long though

        "As a matter of fact, it's all dark.."

        Where's the prism and rainbow icon..

      2. adam 40 Bronze badge

        Re: It won't grow for long though

        > Think you missed the joke icon... <

        From your response, I can see that you're American.

        "Irony, Irony, they've all got it irony....."

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    future of tv sports

    If they send another one we can have a sort of robot wars on the moon.

  19. Sleep deprived

    A chicken and egg problem settled on the Moon

    Ever wondered what came first, fruit flies or fruits? The Chinese settled it for you on the Moon. Those flies are now awaiting the first lunar kitchen to be built.

  20. Tikimon Silver badge

    Bio-Weapons Reactor Prototype

    Can all you technical types have really missed the REAL purpose of this experiment? As pointed out, there have been other bio experiments done before. But this time, the environment box is poorly shielded. They hope exposure to cosmic radiation will mutate the flies over several generations.

    All those Bond movies missed the boat, China will be the first to have a secret moon base. While Western space agencies languish under budget cuts, the Chinese will develop a race of gigantic space mutant flies. One fine day they will fly to Russia and the United States and begin eating everything in sight. Giant maggots will wallow over the landscape, devouring what the flies don't and crushing everything else. After developing in the harsh conditions on the Moon, they will be tough enough to survive any conventional weapons attack. The West will collapse under the onslaught.

    And you thought the little fly was cute...

  21. revenant Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    It's a start

    Nothing too ground-breaking there, but the fact that they have created a self-contained biosphere (albeit a small one) is a clear indication of China's future plans for the moon. It may already have been done on the ISS, but then I don't think anyone has intentions of setting up a colony there.

    One point - unless I missed something the soil used was brought from Earth. It would be interesting to see how far they get with Moon soil (I'm sure it's not just a case of 'Add water...').

  22. SNAFUology

    Biosphere did you say ?

    the US's Biosphere & Biosphere 2 projects failed. Admittedly they were bigger projects but they could not be sustained without external support.

    So it will be interesting for how long any biosphere will last off the planet in harsher conditions, however simple.

    1. Steve K Silver badge

      Re: Biosphere did you say ?

      Unfortunately we have the answer now.... "Not long without heating...."

  23. wayward4now

    Old man Ribar...

    Imagine spending BILLIONS to pick cotton on the moon. And, while we're at it, let's make the moon into another toxic dump, like China, by bringing in fruit flies, yeasts and plant seeds to turn lose. Of course they don't stand a chance in hell of surviving, but it's the notion that they tried, without oversight.

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