Earlier this month, tiny green plants sprouted on the moon.
The plants arrived as cotton seeds, tucked inside of Chang’e 4, a Chinese spacecraft that had landed, in a historic first, on the far side of the moon, the side that never turns toward Earth. The seeds came with the comforts of home: water, air, soil, and a heating system for warmth. Huddled together, the seedlings resembled a miniature, deep-green forest. A hint of life on a barren world.
And then, about a week later, they all died.
Lunar night had set in. Without ample sunlight, surface temperatures near the spacecraft plummeted to –52 degrees Celsius (–62 degrees Fahrenheit). The sprouts’ heating system wasn’t designed to last. The plants froze.
Outer space, as you might expect, is not kind to plants, or people, or most living things, except maybe for tardigrades, those microscopic creatures that look like little bears. If you stuck a daisy out of the International Space Station and exposed it to the vacuum of space, it would perish immediately. The water in its cells would rush out and dissipate as vapor, leaving behind a freeze-dried flower.
China’s experiment marked the first time biological matter has been grown on the moon. (There is biological matter on the moon already, in what NASA politely refers to as “defecation collection devices.”) But plants have blossomed in space for years. They just need a little more care and attention than their terrestrial peers.