According to China's state press agency, Xinhua, the country's Astronaut Research and Training Center has just perfected a system that can be used to grow vegetables in a closed system. The technology could be used to sustain astronauts with a source of food and oxygen in a possible future base on the Moon.

Earlier this year, the Asian superpower announced it was planning to land an unmanned craft on the Moon in the second half of 2013. China's ambitious space program also includes a long-term plan for a manned moon landing, although no timeframe has been set for the latter objective. Now, it looks as if the country is looking even beyond a simple manned landing, as it is developing the capabilities that could one day lead to an extended stay on our rocky satellite.

The experiment, in collaboration with German scientists, took place in the Closed Ecological Life Support Systems (CELSS), a small 300-m3 (10,000 ft3) cabin built in 2011 that is expected to be used in future extraterrestrial bases on the Moon or Mars.

Over the course of the experiment, two subjects lived inside the cabin and successfully managed to grow four different kinds of vegetables. The plants provided a steady source of food and oxygen for the astronauts, who, in turn, produced enough carbon dioxide to sustain plant growth. The system was shown to be sustainable in the long haul even though no new water or oxygen were introduced.

While a permanent moon base is probably still decades away, the system could find application in the shorter term. Even for a relatively short stay, in fact, this technology could be used to minimize an otherwise very expensive load of food and oxygen stock; with costs of a space launch approaching US$10,000 per pound, this could lead to substantial savings even for short missions spanning only a few days.

Sources: CELSS, Futron (PDF)