China plans to launch a recoverable satellite that will carry half a tonne of life forms into space to see if better crops can be produced there, according to scientists involved.

The “passengers” on the satellite, which could be launched early next year, will include more than 240kg (530lbs) of seeds and plants, as well as other forms of life such as bacteria.

The return capsule from Shijian 8 – the world’s first satellite designed for mutation breeding – will bring back the results of the experiment. (Picture: Weibo)

It forms part of the world’s largest single experiment so far into inducing biological mutation with cosmic radiation, according to Chinese government researchers.

And it could be a rough ride. The flight might last about two weeks, during which time the seeds will be exposed to a lack of air, temperatures close to absolute zero and high-energy radiation.

Other life forms such as seedlings may have some air and heating, but will still be exposed to radiation, regardless of their storage conditions, to cause mutations that would have been impossible or taken longer to produce under normal conditions.

After the flight, a capsule will bring its passengers back to Earth so that scientists can sow the seeds, monitor their growth and mark unusual traits such as higher yield or new colors, to identify candidates for commercial exploitation. Some of these variations could produce better crops, the researchers said.

Food security is a big issue for China, which has nearly 20% of the world’s population but only 9% of its arable land.

Over the decades, many nations have sent plants into space to trigger mutations that produce higher-yielding breeds, but none can match China in terms of persistence and scale.

Insights from the country’s space program have brought about a 1.3 million tonne increase in annual grain production, or about a kilogram for every Chinese citizen, according to the Chinese government.

“Mutation is a driving force behind evolution,” said Dr Li Jingzhao, a scientist involved in the program with the Space Breeding Industry Innovation Alliance, a non-profit organisation in Beijing which takes part in the government-run program.

“An increase of mutation will lead to higher biodiversity.”

He added that biodiversity loss, or extinction of species, had become a threat to agriculture.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, about 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost worldwide because of the cultivation of a single crop.

This made food production vulnerable to climate change, among other issues.

“The question is, should we stick entirely to the pace of nature, or give it a little boost?” he asked.

When China launched Shijian 8 – the world’s first satellite designed mainly for mutation breeding – in 2006, carrying about 200kg of vegetable, fruit, grain and cotton seeds, there were doubts among the international community.

Some researchers in the United States said the benefits would not justify the cost. They saw the launch as a publicity stunt, according to a report by New Scientist.

Space flight is expensive, costing US$10,000 per pound of payload, but the Chinese program sent more plants and seeds to space with the support of government funding. Research facilities were set up to study the returning mutants, and scientists and officials appointed to lead it.

For the forthcoming mission, attempts will be made to lower costs. The researchers said the capsule would be reusable, having been designed for up to 15 launches, which would cut the cost of future space missions.

By the end of last year, the commercial plantation of species derived from the “space crop” program had reached 2.4 billion hectares (5.9 billion acres), with direct economic benefits exceeding 200 billion yuan (US$28 billion), according to a government institute.

A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in April this year stated that the second most widely used mutant wheat variety in China, Luyuan 502, had been developed using space-induced mutation breeding, and had a yield 11% higher than the traditional variety.

It was also more resistant to drought and main diseases, the report said.

The IAEA and the FAO are working with China to promote its technology in other countries with the goal of developing new crop varieties.

China has released more than 1,000 mutant crop varieties, accounting for a quarter of the entries listed in the IAEA/FAO database of mutant varieties produced worldwide – more than any other country.

Scientists are also combining other biological technology such as genetic sequencing, molecular labeling and gene editing to help improve the efficiency of new crop species, according to Li.

Professor Liu Zhiyong, a researcher with the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said the biodiversity decline was bad news for the global ecological system.

“The [space crops] project is meaningful because it will produce more varieties for scientific research,” said Liu, who was not involved in the program.