You had just one job, Chinese space botanists

I’m not so good with keeping plants alive and healthy (one could argue I have the same problem with spiders), but as it turns out, Chinese space scientists are just as bad.

One day after China announced it grew the first plants on the Moon, the fledgling plants have been pronounced dead. Rest in peace, lunar sprouts.

On Tuesday, China’s space program said that cotton seeds had germinated in a biosphere carried to the Moon by the nation’s Chang’e-4 lunar lander. By Wednesday, mission leads had broken the news that the plants perished as the lunar night fell over the probe’s landing site.

To be fair, they are facing conditions worse than Minnesota.

The Sunday arrival of the lunar night, which lasts 14 days, deprived the plants of sunlight. During a lunar night, temperatures can plummet as low as −170°C (−274°F). Meanwhile, daytime temperatures on the Moon can reach a sweltering 127°C (260°F). These massive fluctuations are one of the main obstacles encountered by lunar explorers.

But still, that’s no excuse — they knew all this way ahead of time when planning the experiment. Were they just hoping for a spell of warm weather? They knew that wasn’t going to happen, either. Meteorology on a dead planet with virtually no atmosphere is a much easier problem than it is here.

The remaining seeds and fruit fly eggs contained in the mission’s biosphere are not likely to be viable after two weeks of light deprivation and freezing temperatures. According to China’s National Space Administration, they will decompose and remain sealed to avoid contaminating the lunar surface.

They killed fruit flies, too? I don’t understand the point of this experiment if the chamber environment was so poorly planned that one night of expected temperatures was going to kill everything.

Keep this in mind next time you read The Martian. That book was gratingly optimistic and unrealistic about everything.


  1. pipefighter says

    I haven’t read the book but if it’s about a mission with actual people I suspect they would do a little more in the way of planning and preparation. Also this was clearly a publicity stunt and an attempt to establish a first at something.

  2. Becca Stareyes says

    We can test if plants die under 2 weeks of darkness and wild temperature fluctuations on Earth; the more interesting questions arise once we keep them at light levels and temperatures they can survive.

  3. numerobis says

    “One night” is 300 hours. To survive that you would need to control temperature but also provide lots of light. I can see why the experiment skimped on all that equipment.

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Orange Orchard Wranglers in Florida know how to compensate for occasional cold spells sweeping through their flocks of precious OJ fruit.
    You’d think the Chinese Lunatiers could have strung a few flood lights to regulate the sun, which operates on a different schedule there, than on the Earth.

    thank you letting me mangle terminology

  5. davidnangle says

    They should have just sent up a colony of tardigrades… but then again, that’s cheating. And three years hence, astronomers would be reporting a color change in the surface of the moon consistent with a layer of tardigrades three inches thick.

  6. davidnangle says

    Sigh. Between the Simpsons and the Onion, you can’t make an original joke anymore.

    Except this dad joke I made, almost in time for the holidays: What does a cannibal drink around the holidays? Leg nog.

  7. marcoli says

    Well, I still like to think that it was pretty interesting to try, and I felt a surge of pride for the Chinese while it lasted.

  8. ardipithecus says

    Mostly a publicity stunt. There was never any intent for anything to survive nightfall.

    The announcement reminds us that Chang’e-4 is there.

  9. Ichthyic says


    blockquote>Yes, but at least ‘the Martian’ taught me that duct tape has a 1001 uses.

    an idea they clearly stole from the Red Green show.

  10. marcoli says

    Not to be outdone, NASA has announced that their next Martian lander will deploy a live goldfish in a glass bowl on the red planet. NASA engineers explained that once the goldfish is safely on the planet they plan to forget to feed it.

  11. jrkrideau says

    I suspect that we need a lot more detail about the occurrence. At the moment, I am betting on an equipment dysfunction or failure but who knows.

    Think of how difficult it must be to grow something in Antarctica.

  12. wcorvi says

    This seems to me to be an extremely stupid experiment, and waste of money. Can plants grow on the moon? Yes, as long as you provide conditions (light, temp, water) like on earth. Otherwise no. What would you learn from this?

  13. Eric says

    Did I miss a /s tag?

    Did we forget the 1960’s experiments by both the US and the Russians? The Chinese has something green growing on the Moon.

    Maybe certain pop culture references escapes me, but I don’t get it.