China's Chang'e-4 lunar probe is expected to do many things unprecedented in space history after it launches later this year, such as touching down softly on the far side of the Moon and taking the first flowers to blossom on the lifeless lunar surface.
The probe will carry a tin containing seeds of potato and arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard, and probably some silkworm eggs to conduct the first biological experiment on the Moon.
The "lunar mini biosphere" experiment was designed by 28 Chinese universities, led by southwest China's Chongqing University, a conference on scientific and technological innovation of Chongqing municipality has heard.
LIFE ON THE MOON
The cylindrical tin, made from special aluminum alloy materials, is 18 cm tall, with a diameter of 16 cm, a net volume of 0.8 liters and a weight of 3 kilograms. The tin will also contain water, a nutrient solution, air and equipment such as a small camera and data transmission system.
Researchers hope the seeds will grow to blossom on the Moon, with the process captured on camera and transmitted to Earth.
Although astronauts have cultivated plants on the International Space Station, and rice and arabidopsis were grown on China's Tiangong-2 space lab, those experiments were conducted in low-Earth orbit, at an altitude of about 400 kilometers. The environment on the Moon, 380,000 kilometers from the Earth, is more complicated.
Liu Hanlong, chief director of the experiment and vice president of Chongqing University, said since the Moon has no atmosphere, its temperature ranges from lower than minus 100 degrees centigrade to higher than 100 degrees centigrade.
"We have to keep the temperature in the 'mini biosphere' within a range from 1 degree to 30 degrees, and properly control the humidity and nutrition. We will use a tube to direct the natural light on the surface of Moon into the tin to make the plants grow," said Xie Gengxin, chief designer of the experiment.
"We want to study the respiration of the seeds and the photosynthesis on the Moon," said Liu.
"Why potato and arabidopsis? Because the growth period of arabidopsis is short and convenient to observe. And potato could become a major source of food for future space travelers," said Liu. "Our experiment might help accumulate knowledge for building a lunar base and long-term residence on the Moon."
The public, especially young people, are being encouraged to participate in the Chang'e-4 mission. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched a contest among students across China in 2016, collecting ideas on the design of the payloads.
The "lunar mini biosphere" experiment was selected from more than 200 submissions, according to the CNSA.
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