The appearance of a single green leaf hinted at a future in which astronauts would grow their own food in space, potentially setting up residence at outposts on the moon or other planets. Now, barely after it had sprouted the cotton plant onboard China's lunar rover has died.
The plant relied on sunlight at the moon's surface, but as night arrived at the lunar far side and temperatures plunged as low as -170 Degrees Celsius, its short life came to an end. The cotton plants had been the only seed to sprout inside their aluminum container, known as a
'Moon Surface Micro-Ecological Circle"
Professor Xie Gengxin of Chongqing University, who led the design of the experiment said, its short lifespan had been anticipated."
"Life in the canister would not survive the lunar night, " Professor Xie said.
The Chang'e 4 probe entered "Sleep Mode" on Sunday as the first lunar night after the probe's landing fell. Nighttime on the moon lasts for approximately two weeks, after which the probe would wake up again. It's Rover, YuTu-2, has also been required to take a midday nap to avoid overheating while the Sun was directly overhead and temperatures could reach more than 120 Degrees Celsius. Unlike Earth, the Moon has no atmosphere to buffer extreme temperature variations.
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"We had no such experience before and we could not simulate the Lunar environment, such as microgravity and cosmic radiation on Earth," Xie said.
The plants and seeds would gradually decompose in the totally enclosed canister and would not affect the lunar environment, according to the China National Space Administration.
The experiment also included potato seeds, yeast and Arabidopsis or rockcress, a small flowering plant of the mustard family, but none of these showed signs of having sprouted.
Fruit fly eggs were also placed in the canister. The hope was that a Micro-ecosystem would form, in which the plants would provide oxygen to the fruit flies, which would feed on the yeast and produce the carbon dioxide required for photosynthesis.
The Space Agency did not confirm whether the fruit fly eggs had hatched.
"Fruit flies are relatively lazy animals, they might not come out," Xie told. If they fail to hatch they have probably now missed their window of opportunity.
It is not clear why, if the Chinese Space Agency knew the falling of the lunar night would kill the plants on Sunday, their death was not announced along with the successful germination of the seeds on Tuesday