We’re flying Earth life-forms to the moon…soon

Contributed by
Jan 11, 2018

Lunar exploration hasn’t had us this excited since Apollo 17. Human colonies on the moon are becoming more science than fiction, and while no one is buying prime real estate on a crater yet, one mission is setting out to see whether plants and creatures from Earth could survive in this dusty alien world.

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), aka the Chang’e Program (named for the ancient Chinese lunar goddess), is on Universe Today's radar for wanting to venture to the far side of the moon. Literally. Later this year, the Chang’e 4 mission will send a farside lander to the South Pole-Aitken basin to get a macro view of its geology. But wait. This mission will have live things from Earth on board.

Chang’e 4 was a backup to its predecessor, Chang’e 3, so the structure is basically the same, and will probably include a rover, but the scientific payload is going to be different in more ways than one. Accompanying the 11 instruments that will be our eyes to study the lesser known side of the moon will be an aluminum alloy container with potatoes, arabidopsis seeds and silkworm eggs. Silkworms that emerge from these eggs produce carbon dioxide to balance out the oxygen emitted by the plants through photosynthesis. They could—if they survive—create the first viable ecosystem on the moon.

Enter the area Chang’e 4 is probably going to touch down in. The South Pole-Aitken basin is what NASA describes as “a crater within a crater within a basin” and has immense amounts of water ice that are thought have been brought by meteor and asteroid impacts that were just as massive.

In this NASA image from the space agency’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA), the areas shaded in the darkest colors are also the lowest elevations that expose material deep in the lunar crust. Credit: NASA/Goddard

Extraterrestrial water here, which would be critical to life as we know it, hasn’t melted or vaporized in lower elevations because the crater is so deep that direct sunlight is unable to reach it. This crater is also the deepest known crater on the moon that also exposes the deepest layers of the moon’s crust.

Magical as it may seem, water is not the only factor that could determine whether or not Chang’e 4’s micro-ecosystem survives. Lunar regolith is harsh, with grains of glass that can easily scratch space suits and hypersensitive scientific equipment, never mind human lungs and eyeballs, so how well plant and animal life used to softer Earth soil can actually withstand it remains to be seen. There’s a reason astronauts need to watch out that they don’t inhale it.

There’s also the issue of how low gravity will affect living organisms on the moon. Microgravity has been proven to have detrimental effects on the human body, but hardly anything is known about the effects of the moon’s low gravity once those first lunar colonists put on their moon boots and disembark from their spaceship. Scientists are anxious to find out how organisms from Earth can survive in an environment where gravity is just 17 percent of what it is on Earth.

Until the mission launches near the end of 2018, you have to wonder if those silkworms might end up evolving into some kind of moonworms.

(via Universe Today)