After China’s Chang’e 4 probe landed on the dark side of the moon, many people focused on the pictures of its rover roving off to search for grass, lunatics and paperboys. However, back on the lander, an experiment got underway that involves both life existing on the moon and growing food to sustain it. Three guesses as to what kind of food it will grow … Matt Damon, you need to recuse yourself on this one.
“The container will send potatoes, arabidopsis seeds and silkworm eggs to the surface of the Moon. The eggs will hatch into silkworms, which can produce carbon dioxide, while the potatoes and seeds emit oxygen through photosynthesis. Together, they can establish a simple ecosystem on the Moon.”
People’s Daily Online described what Zhang Yuanxun, chief designer of the container, put inside it before sending the package to the moon. While the term “dark side” has been replaced somewhat by “far side,” most people still don’t know that the remote non-Earth-facing side of the moon gets sunlight in quantities that are more than enough to grow potatoes and flowers. (Arabidopsis is a flowering plant related to mustard and cabbage – is this a Chinese experiment or an Irish dinner?) The main challenge for the seeds and worms will be heat, so the mini biosphere is insulated and has a battery-operated heat generator and light pipes.
The experiment was developed by students at Chongqing University and 28 other universities in China who will be anxiously awaiting the results. Will they have to wait until the next manned flight to find out?
“The biosphere package also contains water, air and nutrients, which will hopefully allow the seeds and eggs to briefly flourish in their protective capsule on the lunar surface. A tiny camera and data transmission system will allow researchers to see when and if the seeds blossom.”
The key word there is “briefly.” Just how long will those worms be eating the plants while generating fertilizer and carbon dioxide to stimulate more growth? Will there be enough potatoes to feed Matt Damon? Enough silkworms to all him to weave clothing? Hardly. The container is only 18 cm (5 inches) long. Will that be enough of both to prove to moon residents that there’s life on Earth? Better yet, will they be alive long enough for China to call it a “colony” and lay claim to owning the far side of the moon? The official statement of China’s Communist Party, quoted by the Washington Post, says no.
“Unlike mankind’s mania in the past, the Chinese people ultimately harbor the dream of shared human destiny and practices open cooperation. We choose to go to the back of the moon not because of the unique glory it brings, but because this difficult step of destiny is also a forward step for human civilization!”
Will the world accept that?
Will the lunar silkworms? Will they tire of potatoes and cabbage and send the probe back to Earth for Chinese takeout?