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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."

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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Mystery effect speeds up the universe – not dark energy, says study

Russian astrophysicists propose the Casimir Effect causes the universe's expansion to accelerate.

Black hole accretion disk visualization.

Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman
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  • Astrophysicists from Russia propose a theory that says dark energy doesn't exist.
  • Instead, the scientists think the Casimir Effect creates repulsion.
  • This effect causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
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Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.

How DNA revealed the woolly mammoth's fate – and what it teaches us today

Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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