On April 11, a spacecraft from Israel crashed and burned while trying to complete a moon landing. Scientists loaded the space vehicle with thousands of Tardigrades, which are moss piglets that could survive the extreme environment of space. As confirmed, these Tardigrades survived the crash and could thrive in the moon.
Primarily, the spacecraft was from the Arch Mission Foundation that was launched from the Israel Aerospace Industries mission control center in Yehud. The mission was supposedly the first private moon landing, that is until it crashed.
The spacecraft — called Beresheet — was an uncrewed mission, but its payload included the foundation’s first lunar library, a DVD-sized archive containing 30 million pages of information, human DNA samples, and thousands of tardigrades, which are microscopic “water bears” that can survive in almost any environment.
According to Arch Mission Foundation founder Nova Spivack, those bacteria are still alive. Though debated if Spivack’s statement holds validity, the bigger question asked was if the spilling of Earth-based and extremely versatile creatures in space could potentially be a disastrous accident.
Wild tardigrades in space sound like a fantastic beginning of a sci-fi-thriller movie, but some scientists argue that this may not be exactly the case.
The unique thing about tardigrades is that they have been found to be one of the most resilient creatures on planet Earth and have proven to survive extreme temperatures and pressure.
In a last-minute decision, the Arch Mission Foundation dehydrated the tardigrades and put them in resin along with the rest of the foundation’s library. Spivack said that the resin should be strong enough to maintain the library from breakage or melting, even as Beresheet landed on the moon.
Specifically, those that boarded Beresheet were in “tun” form, a dormant or desiccated state where they shrivel up into a ball, expel most of the water in their bodies, and lower their metabolism via cryptobiosis until they enter an environment better suited to sustain life.
Tardigrades usually enter this desiccated state to improve its survivability drastically. In terms of evolution, these bacteria learned how to react to drought through slowing their metabolism down to an astonishing 0.01 percent from its average speed and their body’s water.
“Tardigrades in their dry state can survive pressures up to 74,000 times the pressure we experience at sea level, so the [crash] impact should not be a problem for them,” evolutionary zoologist Roberto Guidetti told an outlet. “They can stay dry for decades, potentially centuries.”
In this state, the tardigrade just persists, doing nothing, until it is introduced to some sort of liquid again. When that happens, the creature can return to life and proceed as if nothing happened.
Furthermore, scientists were baffled by the creature’s intense persistence to survive tested their capabilities in space back in 2007, where a European team of researchers sent a group of living tardigrades to orbit the Earth on the outside of a FOTON-M3 rocket for ten days.
Scientists discovered that these microscopic critters could survive an extended stay in the cold and irradiated vacuum of outer space. And, when the water bears returned to Earth, the scientists discovered that 68 percent lived through the ordeal.
Even though Tardigrades are very resilient and could survive in space. Without water, however, these creatures cannot thrive.
Hence, the threat of whether these creatures can contaminate and cause havoc on the moon’s dry surface is highly unlikely.
However, scientists warn that if they were spilled in other planets like Mars that has the potential of supporting life, contamination is more worrisome.
A Tardigrade spill on Mars could endanger any possible life. This is why space missions to Mars and other moons undergo sterilization precautions to reduce the chance of microbes from Earth hitching a ride to another celestial body and vice versa.
On the other side of the story, Arch Mission Foundation, the nonprofit in charge of the spill, simply wanted to achieve its goal to create “a backup of planet Earth.”
“Our job, as the hard backup of this planet, is to make sure that we protect our heritage — both our knowledge and our biology,” Spivack said. “We have to sort of plan for the worst.”
In particular, the foundation wanted to create archives of all human knowledge that could last for millions, if not billions, of years, and to seed them across Earth and throughout the solar system.
The first archive that the foundation sent to space was in the Tesla Roadster’s glove compartment in 2018. Now, it is in a 30-million-year orbit around the sun.