China’s latest space biology experiment moon planting, in which a cotton seed sprouts on the moon’s far side aboard its lunar lander Chang’e 4, is a “significant leap” in life-support technologies for future human space habitation, a senior US scientist has said.
A canister on the probe that forms a minibiosphere for seeds of cotton, rapeseed, potato and Arabidopsis, as well as eggs of the fruit fly and some yeast has ended its operation as planned, and the data it collected will be “invaluable in improving the experiment and possibly make the moon habitable for humans”, Xie Gengxin, chief designer of the experiment, said on Friday.
With the experiment and earlier related efforts, China is leading in the area of bioregenerative life support and space agricultural technologies crucial for long-duration human space exploration, according to Marshall Porterfield, who was division director for NASA’s space life and physical sciences from 2012 to 2016.
The major differences in the experiment done aboard the Chang’e 4 mission and those by others, including on the International Space Station (ISS), are the automation and integration of biological research capabilities in the lunar lander, said Porterfield, now a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University.
“This puts the experiment out beyond the radiation shielding of the planet,” he said, adding that deep space radiation is the major impediment to human Mars exploration, and ISS research currently does not expose the experiments to the deep space radiation environment.
Porterfield, who has been involved in space biology research for more than 25 years, said China’s experiment on the lunar surface takes life out into a harsh environment and builds knowledge and expertise in understanding life in deep space.
“When I was at NASA, we had opportunities to develop these types of experiments but lacked the budget and resources. Now China is doing this important work, which will contribute greatly to the future of human space habitation,” he said.
NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has had a long history of pursuing bioregenerative life support and controlled environment agriculture in programs dating back to the 1980s and 90s.