Cotton shoot growing on Chang'e (CNSA)For a brief period, a small green shoot grew on the Moon. A cotton seed germinated on board the Chinese space probe Chang'e 4, which successfully touched down on the Moon's surface on 3rd January. “This is the first time humans have done biological growth experiments on the lunar surface,” said Xie Gengxin of Chongqing University, who designed the experiment. The ability to grow plants in space is seen by scientists as a vital step in preparation for establishing colonies on Mars one day in the future. Growing and harvesting crops, using water extracted from the ground or melted from ice, would mean astronauts could survive on Mars for much longer than if they relied on supplies from Earth.
Moon Goddess Chang'e
The Chang’e 4 probe, named after the Chinese Goddess of the Moon, made the first ever landing on the far side of the Moon on 3rd January 2019. It was a major step in China’s ambitions to join the USA and Russia as a space superpower. The successful landing took place in the Von Kármán crater, which lies inside the South Pole-Aitken Basin.
A challenge faced by the Chinese team was how to communicate with the probe hidden behind the Moon. Signals to and from Chang'e were relayed via a satellite, called Queqiao ("Magpie bridge"), orbiting in such a way that it could communicate with both Chang’e and the Earth. During the final phases of its approach to the lunar surface, Chang’e 4 could not be operated remotely even through Queqiao; it had to steer itself carefully on to a boulder-free surface automatically.
Communication with Chang'e 4 (Planetary Society)
Far side of the Moon (NASA)
Far side of the Moon
The far side of the Moon is pockmarked by more craters than the side facing Earth. Maria, the "seas" of solidified lava, are almost entirely absent from the far side. Evidently, fewer lava flows occurred on the far side, leaving intact a more complete record of ancient asteroid impacts.
The oldest, largest and deepest of these impact craters is the Aitken Basin, where Chang’e 4 touched down.
Scientists from Chongqing University sent an 18-centimetre (7-inch) container holding air, water and soil on board Chang'e. Inside were the seeds of cotton, potato and arabidopsis (a flowering plant of the mustard family). The researchers wanted to test how well plants grew in the weak lunar gravity. Images sent back by the probe show the cotton plant had started to grow, but none of the other plants sprouted. The cotton plant relied on sunlight on the Moon’s surface, so as night arrived and temperatures plunged to -170°C, its short life came to an end. This was anticipated by the scientists.
Yutu rover (NAOC)
Chang’e 4 is equipped with several instruments designed to study the lunar environment, cosmic radiation and the interaction between solar wind and the Moon’s surface. The lander also released a rover, named Yutu 2 (which means "Jade Rabbit").
Dating the crater
Chang'e lander (NAOC)Scientists believe that the far side of the Moon, permanently out of sight from Earth, may provide crucial information about the early history of the Moon. Providing an accurate date of when the Aitken Basin was created could help scientists work out when the period of heavy bombardment of the Moon and inner planets by asteroids left over from the formation of the Solar System took place. The timing of the bombardment is thought to coincide with the time when life appeared on Earth. Scientists are trying to find out whether the bombardment might have actually helped create the conditions for life.
Panoramic image taken by Chang'e (Qiuqiuziziz)
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