A team of researchers at Chongqing University shared photos of the sprout at a news conference in Chongqing on Tuesday.
“The first green leaf on the moon!” the university wrote in a translated news release.
The sprout represents the first-ever seed planted on the moon by humans, professor Xie Gengxin, head of the Institute of Advanced Technology at Chongqing University, told the audience.
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The accomplishment is a key step on the road to establishing human colonies beyond Earth, where astronauts will likely have to grow their own food to survive over a long period of time.
The cotton seed sprouted inside a sealed metal tank that also contains rapeseed, potato and Arabidopsis seeds, as well as yeast and fruit fly eggs. The specimens are planted in soil, fed by an attached water source and lit by a sunlight tube.
Arabidopsis is a flowering weed related to cabbage and mustard. If it grows, it could potentially produce the first flower on the moon.
The experiments were designed to test whether a self-contained ecosystem can be set up on the moon where there is no atmosphere, low gravity and higher radiation compared to conditions on Earth.
“The plants would generate oxygen and food for other living things to consume,” according to an English description of the experiment on the website of Chongqing University, where it was originally devised. The fruit flies and yeast are meant to consume oxygen and generate more carbon dioxide for the plants to use in photosynthesis.
Chinese scientists are monitoring the plants’ growth through a series of photos sent back to Earth each day. The first sprouts appeared in photos from Jan. 7, three days after water was released into the soil.
The cotton seed appears to be the first of the specimens to sprout on the moon.
A similar experiment set to run at the same time on Earth has already produced several seedlings.
Humans have grown plants on the International Space Station but never on the moon.
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China became the first nation to reach the so-called “far” side of the moon on Jan. 3. Its lunar lander, the Chang’e 4, touched down with several experimental payloads on board, including the tank full of seeds.
The lander has also deployed a rover, dubbed the Jade Rabbit 2.
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China is scheduled to launch another unmanned mission, Chang’e 5, to visit the moon and return with samples at the end of the year.