Chang’e 4: Why Is the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program Sending Silkworms & Potatoes to the Moon?

This June, the Chinese Space Exploration Program is sending silkworms and potatoes to live on the surface of the moon. If it goes well, humans could be next.

CLEP’s chief aim with the ecosystem is to study the effects of lunar gravity on insects and plants.

The moon’s gravity measures 0.16 g. In other words, items on the moon will only weigh about 16 percent what they do on Earth. While an 84 percent weight loss may be enticing in theory, “microgravity,” as near-weightless environments are called, has been shown to have negative health effects for humans.

According to a 2001 study by NASA’s Human Research Program, “Without gravity working on your body,  your bones lose minerals, with density dropping at over 1 percent per month.”

Further, according to a report by the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, “astronauts experience up to a 20 percent loss of muscle mass on space flights lasting five to 11 days.” Significant liver damage was also discovered in mice that were aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, and astronauts have been known to return to Earth with diabetes-like symptoms.

Though longer-term health effects of lunar gravity are still unknown, the Chang’e mission is thought to be a potential first step toward a long-discussed lunar base.

A possible replacement for the International Space Station, which is slated to be decommissioned in 2024, the European Space Agency’s Moon Village currently has the support of 22 ESA member states and a pledged $10.77 billion in funds.

“We have been living in low-Earth orbit for the last 17 years on board a space station and we are on our journey to Mars for the first human mission,” ESA’s Piero Messina told AFP last year. “In between, we believe that there is an opportunity to create a permanent… sustainable presence on the surface of the Moon.”

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