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How did China set up a tiny farm on the moon?

On January 3, 2019, China's Chang'e-4 lander touched down on the far side of the moon and deployed the Yutu rover. In addition to its many instruments, the rover carried an important science experiment known as the Biological Experiment Payload (BEP). Over the next eight days, this payload conducted a vital experiment where it attempted to grow the first plants on the moon. Included in the payload were cotton, potato, arabidopsis, and rape seeds, along with fly eggs, yeast, and 18 ml (0.6 fluid oz) of water, which was kept at a constant atmospheric pressure.

The results of this experiment will help inform future Bioregenerative Life Support System (BLSS), which will prove vital to habitats and missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). A team of scientists from China recently released a study that reviewed the experiment, its results, and its potential implications for future missions to the moon, Mars, and other deep-space locations. As they concluded, the experiment demonstrated that plants can grow on the moon despite the intense radiation, low gravity, and prolonged intense light.

The team consisted of researchers from the Center of Space Exploration, the College of Aerospace Engineering, and the Key Laboratory of Biology and Genetic Breeding for Tuber and Root Crops at Chongqing University, as well as the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China and the Laboratory of Space Biology at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Chengdu. The results of their analyses were shared in two papers that appeared on June 20 in Microgravity Science and Technology and on October 17 in Acta Astronautica, respectively.

Growing plants in lunar, Martian, and space habitats is essential for many reasons. In addition to providing a source of nutrition and reducing the need for resupply missions, they will also remove carbon dioxide and provide fresh oxygen, help recycle waste, and contribute to the crews' sense of well-being. And whereas conventional Environmental Control and Life-Support Systems (ECLSS) rely on mechanical components that eventually break down and require replacement, a bioregenerative system can replenish itself over time.


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