China grew a plant on the moon — it sprouted two leaves, data indicates

It marks the first time a plant has been grown on the moon.

3D reconstruction of a cotton plant

Image source: Chongqing University
  • In January, China became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.
  • Chang'e-4 lunar rover carried among its payload a small biosphere that housed six lifeforms, including cotton seeds.
  • Using data from that biosphere experiment, researchers constructed a digital image of the cotton plant that reveals it grew two leaves before dying from the cold.


In January, China made history when it landed its Chang'e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the moon. The mission was also the first to experiment with growing plants on the moon, and it brought to the lunar surface a mini-biosphere called the Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME). The conditions within this small, cylindrical biosphere were similar to those on Earth, besides the microgravity and cosmic radiation. The LME contained:

  • potato seeds
  • cotton seeds
  • rape seeds
  • yeast
  • fruit fly eggs
  • Arabidopsis thaliana, a common weed

All of these died quickly, except the cotton. Now, a new 3D reconstruction shows that the cotton plant grew not one, but two leaves before dying due to the cold temperatures after about two weeks. The results suggest that the experiment was slightly more successful than initially thought.

The leader of China's experiment, Xie Gengxin of the advanced Technology Research Institute at Chongqing University, doesn't plan to publish any scientific papers based on this research. But he hopes to continue studying how various lifeforms might be able to survive on the moon.

Why NASA wants to grow plants in space

Learning how to reliably grow plants in space is necessary if NASA or other space agencies want to launch long-term missions.

"Simply packing some multi-vitamins will not be enough to keep astronauts healthy as they explore deep space," NASA wrote in April. "They will need fresh produce."

Why? Some reasons are logistical. For example, the nutrients in supplements and prepared meals will break down over time, and radiation could accelerate that process. So, growing fresh produce would give astronauts access to fresher nutrients, not to mention better tasting food. Also, if astronauts could grow plants on spaceships, they wouldn't have to carry as much prepared food onboard.

But there are also psychological benefits to growing plants in space.

"We already know from our pioneering astronauts that fresh flowers and gardens on the International Space Station create a beautiful atmosphere and let us take a little piece of Earth with us on our journeys," NASA wrote. "They're good for our psychological well-being on Earth and in space."

NASA is also interested in making dining in space a pleasant experience for astronauts. For example, the agency has packed comfort food and holiday meals on recent missions, and has conducted research on astronauts' preference for communal versus solo dining, as well as whether they benefit from cooking food themselves. Other researchers are exploring how space dining can fulfill astronauts' emotional needs, and also how to counteract phenomenon specific to space travel, such as the loss of the sense of smell.

"At the end of the day, we're not worried about the muscle cells," NASA nutritionist Scott Smith told Eater. "We're worried about the human."

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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