Although NASA has not sent a man to the Moon for nearly five decades, lunar exploration does continue today. Indeed, nations from across the world have undertaken missions to visit our natural satellite. And in January 2019 China became the first country to sprout a seed there – perhaps opening the way for even more daring goals.
China began its Lunar Exploration Program in 2003 with the aim of making a structured set of lunar visits. It uses each of its individual missions to show how future technology will work, building towards the goal of ultimately putting people on the Moon. For now though, robots undertake the Chinese Moon missions.
It’s not all about China, however. In fact, the nation has reached out to others, calling for cross-border cooperation at a press conference in January 2019. And collaboration is nothing new to the Chinese. In 1988 they reached an agreement with the U.S. to lift American satellites into space aboard Chinese rockets.
In more recent times, China has been pressing on with its lunar program. It began when geologist Ouyang Ziyuan suggested that some of the Moon’s elements could be exploited for use on Earth. Ouyang is today the program’s chief scientist, with men such as general designer Sun Jiadong and the program’s lead Luan Enjie working alongside him.
China’s Moon program had its first major success when it fired a spacecraft into orbit around the Moon in October 2007. That craft was sent up from a site near Xichang which has been functioning since 1984. This site is one of four centers for sending satellites into space from China.
That first mission had the name of Chang’e 1 and all subsequent stages of the lunar program have also been called Chang’e. This is the name of the Moon goddess in Chinese mythology. Chang’e, according to myth, is said to bring good looks to those who worship her, which some do specifically at the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Curiously, Chang’e’s connection to Moon exploration goes back to the first landing in 1969. Back then, Ronald Evans, an astronaut at the Houston command center, told the crew of Apollo 11 that they should be on the lookout for a pretty girl. Evans said, “An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-O has been living there for 4,000 years.”
There have, however, been no reports of goddesses on the Moon from the many missions that have gone there. Indeed, life cannot exist there – although it’s possible that it might have occurred there a long time ago. In fact, some scientists have suggested that conditions may have sustained life more than 3 billion years ago – but not since then.
So one of the goals of the most recent mission, Chang’e 4, was to land an experimental ecosystem on the Moon. The mission’s planners wanted to find out whether you even could germinate seeds if you provided a carefully controlled environment. The obstacles were formidable and to make the challenge even greater, Chang’e 4 was bound for the far side of the Moon.
The spacecraft was equipped with a seven-inch biosphere cylinder containing seeds and insect eggs. Furthermore, the craft’s lander, as well as having cameras on its top and bottom, had a spectrometer and a dosimeter. The former was intended to measure bursts of radio waves from the Sun and the latter was to look at radiation levels on the Moon.
Chang’e 4 also deployed a rover, which itself had an array of scientific equipment. It carried a camera that could turn in a full circle, for instance. And that wasn’t all – the rover could look beneath the surface with a radar that could penetrate as deep as around 110 yards. And alongside other tools and gizmos, the mission team had a formidable variety of ways to investigate the Moon.
The technologies which were employed within the Chang’e 4 mission weren’t just a benefit to the Chinese program. In fact, the mission in general demonstrated its commitment to international cooperation with regard to its scientific cargo. Indeed, a combination of German, Dutch, Swedish and Saudi partners all came up with some of it.
In May 2018 a communications satellite had been positioned in what’s known as a “halo orbit” between Earth and the Moon. This satellite’s purpose was to allow transmissions between the Chang’e 4 spacecraft and the command center in China. These communications would otherwise not be possible from the Moon’s far side.
The satellite is named Queqiao, which is Chinese for “Magpie Bridge.” It, too, has taken its name from Chinese mythology, wherein Queqiao is a bridge that birds flying throughout the Milky Way have built. The satellite’s design takes after that of Chang’e 2, an earlier mission that had been heavily involved in testing communications.
The mythology connection does not end with Queqiao, however. The Moon rover known as Yutu 2 gets its moniker from the “Jade Rabbit,” a lunar inhabitant that is associated with the goddess Chang’e. And according to legend, this rabbit is a valuable friend as well, since it helps Chang’e stay young forever by making her an elixir of life.
The rocket carrying the lander and Yutu 2 blasted off in early December 2018 and reached lunar orbit a few days later. At the end of that month, the orbiting vehicle was brought closer to the Moon, ready for a landing on January 3, 2019. Just after the sun came up, the lander touched down on the lunar surface.
The lander touched down in a crater which was named after one Theodore von Kármán. This was the man that supervised Qian Xuesen, the founder of the Chinese space program, as he undertook his doctorate. The landing site therefore held a special sentimental significance, but it was also thought to be important for scientific purposes.
This is because Von Kármán sits in the Aitken Basin. This is a part of the Moon that many years ago took a wallop from another celestial body, leaving an eight-mile-deep crater. Scientists think that they might be able to see the Moon’s deep crust there, as well as possibly even components of the Moon’s mantle.
The Chang’e 4 mission resulted in the first “soft landing” on the Moon’s far side – an area never previously explored by scientists. A soft landing is one in which a spacecraft touched down intact, without any breakages. Indeed, Yutu 2 was able to drive onto the surface of the Moon shortly after the lander settled onto the surface.
Soon, photographs of the lander and the rover were crossing the Queqiao communications satellite on the way to mission control. The Chinese space authorities told news agency Xinhua that the probe’s scientific equipment was doing its work. And not long afterwards, the mission team could see for themselves that they had successfully landed on the far side of the Moon.
The mission controllers did not stint on sharing their excitement. One of the lead scientists, Li Chunlai, told Xinhua, “From the panorama, we could see the probe was surrounded by many small craters. It was really thrilling.” Li also felt that the landing site might indeed have turned out to be well-chosen.
“Compared with the landing site of the Chang’e-3… fewer rocks can be found in the area surrounding Chang’e-4, indicating [that] the landing area of Chang’e-4 might be older,” Li continued. But having fewer rocks did not mean the mission would be easy. As Li pointed out, “The rugged terrain will pose great challenges for planning the route of the rover.”
Sending out the rover did not by any means end the mission; to the contrary, an incredible experiment was about to begin. In 2015 a contest was launched throughout China which aimed at inspiring the young to put forward their views on what the Chang’e 4 probe should carry. And the winning idea took the form of a self-contained biosphere.
Nearly 30 Chinese educational establishments came together to create the biosphere. In it, the living things that the Chinese hoped would grow would be supplied with air, food and moisture. The idea was to keep the inside of the canister balmy, as temperatures on the Moon can range from boiling to many degrees below zero.
The canister’s inside was intended to be kept at in and around 77 °F. And that’s not all; specially-made tubes were a part of the design in order to allow light to be provided for plants to use in photosynthesis. In fact, the biosphere was designed to include a whole self-contained ecosystem.
The head of design for the project, Professor Xie Gengxin, said that four plants, a fungus and flies were all led in the container. And experiment lead Professor Liu Hanlong said that the six organisms would act as “producers, consumers and decomposers.” In this way, the fruit flies would be able to live off the products of the plants’ respiration.
Meanwhile, yeast would decompose waste from both the flies and the plants, creating even more fly food. On top of that, the four plants could be very significant to space travelers. Professor Liu envisaged astronauts chomping on potatoes, making clothing from cotton and using rapeseed to make oil. The fourth plant, rockcress, is of great use to science as a model.
In spite of Professor Liu’s notions of future usages, the small biosphere container would not be feeding anything bigger than the flies for the time being. Nonetheless, European Space Agency boffin Bernard Foing confirmed that the six living things “could make up a mini-ecosystem.” But would they actually grow in their little home on the surface of the Moon?
The answer was a resounding “yes,” as Professor Liu could confirm. Not long after the probe had landed, he told the world that the cotton seeds had germinated. And an image shown to the world by China’s space gurus did indeed feature new life emerging on the far side of the Moon.
Furthermore, Liu noted that sprouts had emerged from the seeds of potato and rapeseed. And remarkably the plants proved vigorous, showing good growth. In the final analysis, this marked a real milestone in space science. The Chinese had become the first people to cause something to grow on the Moon.
Some members of the worldwide astronomical community have welcomed the Chinese progress. Speaking to the BBC, Australian Astronomical Observatory skywatcher Fred Watson looked to the future potential of the experiment. “It suggests that there might not be insurmountable problems for astronauts in future trying to grow their own crops on the moon in a controlled environment,” he said.
Indeed, this tiny world-in-a-can might yet have great significance for humankind. Being able to grow crops in space might mean that astronauts could reap their own harvests, obviating the need to return home for supplies. Given that even a journey to Mars might take somewhere between two and three years, this could be invaluable.
And this is definitely of interest to the Chinese, as Liu confirmed. “We have given consideration to future survival in space,” he explained to the South China Morning Post. “Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base.”
Over the next decade and a half, China aims to explore planets within our Solar System – perhaps even gathering samples from Mars. And it’s not finished with the Moon yet either. In fact, the country hopes to land a person there some time in the 2030s. And the idea of a space station actually being on the Moon could even become reality before then.
Indeed, China has already had students attempting to live within an artificial environment like the Moon’s. Within this space, they enjoyed mealworms and crops that they grew using their own poop as fertilizer. Those who’ve seen the film The Martian may well be used to that idea – it’s how the astronaut abandoned on Mars grew his own crop of potatoes.
And the Chinese are not the only people interested in the idea of humans living on the Moon. It turns out that NASA, too, has plans to create a Moon colony. NASA hopes to use the burgeoning private space industry in order to carry its own experiments to the surface of our satellite.
Perhaps NASA will hitch a ride with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which says it is planning a spacecraft that will go to the Moon, come back and then go again. And this is just the start; Musk has ambitions to land humans on Mars by 2024. The year after that, he believes humans could begin to live on the red planet – but whether they will munch on potatoes remains to be seen.
However ambitious those plans sound, space has of course been the setting for bold action before. In 1961 President Kennedy called on the United States to “[land] a man on the Moon and [return] him safely to Earth” before the decade was out. And Project Apollo achieved that in 1969.
According to Xinhua, China intends to put a probe on Mars in 2021 and a new rover will then roam the surface of the planet, all going to plan. “Exploring the unknown is human nature,” Wu Weiren, a leader in lunar exploration design, explained in relation to Moon exploration. “The Moon is a mysterious world to us. We have a responsibility to explore and to understand it.”
By January 15, 2019, the experimental garden on the Moon had come to a close. And all in all, the experiment could be seen to have been a triumph. Indeed, for the first time in history, humans had brought forth a new life on the surface of our planet’s Moon.