Indestructible tardigrades thought to have lived through crash-landing on the Moon
An ambitious but ultimately doomed mission to land the first private spacecraft on the Moon may not be without entirely without scientific consequence. Among the many items onboard Israel's ill-fated Beresheet lunar lander were thousands and thousands of tardigrades. Yes, those microscopic creatures capable of surviving the harshest of conditions – including even severe impacts with the lunar surface, according to the team behind the experiment.
The Beresheet lunar lander was poised to make history as it zeroed in on the Moon's surface in late April, but was unable to reduce its velocity on approach and wound up crashing into the surface. The lander was lost, along with a host of scientific instruments including a magnetomer and laser reflector array for NASA.
But at least one item of luggage is thought to have survived the crash, as first reported by Wired. The Arch Lunar Library is a DVD-sized capsule hoped to "preserve records of our civilization for up to billions of years." It is the first in a series of such archives from non-profit the Arch Mission Foundation, who aims to provide an off-site a backup of planet Earth, a vision that includes "disseminating humanity's most important knowledge across time and space."
The Arch Lunar Library is made up of 25 nickel discs storing all kinds of data including photos, images of book pages, illustrations and the entire English Wikipedia. And encapsulated in artificial amber within the lunar library were 100 million cells from 25 humans, along with thousands and thousands of tardigrades.
These minuscule critters are among the toughest animals on our planet, and thought to be largely indestructible owing to their ability to enter a state of deep suspended animation, effectively freezing themselves in time. This enables them to live without food, water and oxygen, endure extreme temperatures, the crushing pressures at the bottom of the ocean and the vacuum of space. In fact, a Harvard-led study last year concluded that it might take the death of the Sun to do away with the species for good.
But it's not true to say these superpowers are what enabled them to survive the crash. The Arch Mission Foundation believes that the entire lunar library is actually intact, based on scientific analysis of images from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
What is true to say, however, is that there are now thousands of indestructible living organisms on the Moon, which weren't there before. But the Arch Mission Foundation was quick to quell fears of them rousing and spreading across the lunar environment, reiterating the fact that they are secured inside slow-cure epoxy with the only hopes of them coming to life resting on their successful retrieval and relocation.
"Tardigrades can enter a state of deep suspended animation," the foundation tweeted. "They are not able to move around or reproduce on the Moon. They are frozen in time. They would have to be recovered and taken to a place with a suitable atmosphere, and then rehydrated, to *potentially* be reanimated."
But their arrival there does raise the issue of planetary protection, as it is known, or the idea that celestial bodies should be preserved in their natural state for the sake of scientific study. NASA's Office of Planetary Protection is setup exactly for this reason.
When NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn came to an end in 2017, the agency had it burn up in the atmosphere rather than risk contaminating the planet's potentially habitable Moons. And the Tesla Elon Musk famously fired into space early last year raised a few eyebrows in the scientific community for similar reasons.
For its part, The Arch Mission Foundation insists there are no such risks resulting from the surviving DNA and tardigrades, due to the lack of atmosphere and resulting levels of radiation.
"The Moon is a Type 1 destination with no atmosphere," it stated on Twitter. "We are mindful of Planetary Protection. We would not send anything to a location with an atmosphere. The Moon already has nearly 100 bags of human waste left by Apollo astronauts, plus a small plant landed by China."