Weeks ago, China became the first nation to land a lunar rover on the dark side of the Moon, marking a historic high point for the nation’s space program that has been rapidly closing the capability gap created by decades of American and Russian space endeavors. This week, China announced yet another historic first that has long-lasting implications for manned space exploration in the future: China is growing plants on the Moon.

The confirmation that cotton seeds have begun to sprout aboard China’s Chang’e 4 lunar lander marks the first time biological matter has been grown on the Moon’s surface. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have, however, grown a variety of plants in low Earth orbit. China’s self-contained miniature biosphere includes seeds for plants like cotton, potatoes, rapeseed, and yeast, along with fruit fly eggs. The experiment hopes to establish and maintain a self-reliant environment that proves man-made ecospheres can indeed survive on the lunar surface.

“We have given consideration to future survival in space. Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of a space base,” Professor Xie Gengxin, the experiment’s chief designer, told the press.

The self-reliant biosphere housed within China’s Chang’e 4 lunar lander includes a supply of air, water, and varied nutrients needed to allow the plants to grow. Temperature and humidity levels are maintained through on-board systems, which is integral due to the Moon’s wildly-shifting surface temperatures that can range from 212 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun to -280 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.

The ability to grow plant life on the Moon or in deep space could have a number of benefits for manned space voyages in the future. Launch payloads could be reduced if crews could grow food during the trip and the photosynthesis process could reduce carbon dioxide, help manage moisture levels within the spacecraft, and of course, produce breathable air. Long-term colonies on Mars or the Moon would also need a sustainable source of oxygen and food. Producing it locally would represent a much safer and more economically-feasible model than ferrying such supplies to and from Earth.

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China accomplishes historic first as seeds sprout inside lunar lander mini-habitat
Cotton sprouts seen close-up under a protective cover aboard the Chang’e 4 Lunar Lander (CNSA)

The seeds sent aboard the Chinese lander each have specific roles to play in a future colony: potatoes are calorie-dense and a resilient food source, cotton could help produce clothing, and the rapeseed plants could be a source of oil. The yeast will aid in decomposition and decomposing plant matter will provide sustenance for the flies — assuming the experiment progresses as planned.

Some have voiced concerns about China’s experiment, suggesting that the introduction of these life forms to the lunar surface could result in inter-planetary contamination. NASA, for instance, employs a planetary protection officer whose sole task is to ensure NASA makes every effort possible to avoid polluting foreign space bodies with Earth-borne bacteria. However, those concerns seem a bit like picking nits when one considers the 100 or so bags of human waste NASA’s Apollo missions left on the Moon’s surface decades ago.