When SpaceIL’s Beresheet lander crashed into the Moon, it was a bitter-sweet moment for Israel’s space exploration aspirations. The privately-built spacecraft was punching above its weight class by proceeding on its journey to the Moon. Unfortunately, it crashed, ending the dream.
But Beresheet carried some unusual passengers, as part of an unusual, yet visionary, sub-mission: tardigrades.
Tardigrades keep popping up in scientific discussions because they’re Earth’s hardiest life-form. Also called water bears, or moss piglets, tardigrades are tiny animals that can withstand extreme temperatures, extreme dryness, and lack of food. They can withstand both the vacuum of space, and pressure as powerful as that at the deepest point in Earth’s oceans. If that isn’t enough to crown them as Earth’s toughest creature, they’re also resistant to radiation.
Now, there are thousands of these near-indestructible creatures on the Moon.
First of all they’re not bugs.
Tardigrades are eight-legged, segmented micro-animals that live in water. There are over 1100 known species of tardigrades. They’ve been around a long time and there are tardigrade fossils from over 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian period.
The group responsible for sending these creatures to the Moon is the non-profit Arch Mission Foundation. If you haven’t heard of them before, they’re an interesting group. To quote their website copy, “The Arch Mission Foundation is a non-profit organization that archives the knowledge and species of Earth for future generations.”
They sent thousands of tardigrades to the surface of the Moon on SpaceIL’s Beresheet Lander, as part of their effort to create a “back-up of planet Earth,” as their vision statement says. What makes a better backup than Earth’s hardiest animal?
The idea was that when Beresheet landed safely on the Moon, the tardigrades would land safely, too. But Beresheet didn’t land safely on the Moon; it crashed. That crashed caused uncertainty. But according to Nova Spivack, the co-founder and chairman of the Arch Mission Foundation, it’s likely that the tardigrades survived.
In an interview with the international news agency AFP (Agence France-Presse) Spivack said “we believe the chances of survival for the tardigrades… are extremely high,” based on analysis of the spacecraft’s trajectory and the design of the device containing the creatures.
But what purpose do the tardigrades serve? Are they the storm-troopers of terrestrial DNA? Is it a science experiment? Will they be retrieved?
We’ll get to that.
You might be wondering who gave the okay to send alien lifeforms to another body. After all, there’s an entire organization devoted to preventing humans from contaminating other worlds with terrestrial microbes. NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection exists to make sure we don’t contaminate other worlds, which would prevent us from studying them in their natural state. We have an obligation to preserve any native lifeforms that may live on those worlds, or if there are none, to preserve that sterility.
Spacecraft are assembled in clean rooms and disinfected before they’re sent on their way, just to make sure. At the end of a mission, spacecraft are sometimes purposely sent to their destruction into Saturn, Jupiter, or interstellar space.
What’s different about this mission?
In the same interview with AFP, Spivack said that the tardigrades are basically in suspended animation. It’s impossible for them to survive on the Moon, except as dormant beings. Spivack said the animals are “encased in an epoxy of Artificial Amber, and should be revivable in the future.” The key here is that they have no hope of contaminating the inhospitable Moon.
The tardigrades weren’t sent to the Moon just for fun. And they’re not the only things that the Arch Mission Foundation sent there onboard Beresheet. It’s all part of their Lunar Library. The Beresheet lander contained a 30 million page archive, the first installation of their Lunar Library.
The Lunar Library is designed as a back-up for the combined knowledge of human civilization. It was conceived in the mold of Isaac Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica from his short story “Foundation.” The Library is a 100 mg. nano-technological device. It looks kind of like a 120 mm DVD and contains a 30-million-page archive of human history that’s viewable under microscopes. It also contains human DNA.
It’s composed of 25 nickel discs, each one only 40 microns thick. It contains a wealth of information on human civilization. The complete description is here, but here are a few highlights:
But why include tardigrades among all this civilisational data?
According to Spivack, “Tardigrades are ideal to include because they are microscopic, multi-cellular, and one of the most durable forms of life on planet Earth.” But that doesn’t really answer the question. In fact, we couldn’t find anywhere in the Arch Mission Foundation’s literature where it say exactly whey they’re included.
In any case, the poor creatures are very likely doomed. Sure, they can survive the extreme conditions and deprivation on the lunar surface, but in only a dormant, hibernation state. They can never become active again. There’s no food, no water, no oxygen, and no plan to go get them to see if they did, in fact, survive.
We think of the lunar landings in glowing terms, and why not? Collectively, they’re one of humanity’s peak technological and explorational achievements. But there’s a sort of nasty downside to it: bags of urine and feces left behind on the Moon. What? You thought they brought it back with them? Nope. In any case, it’s just a simple fact of biological exploration.
The point is, it’s highly unlikely that these tardigrades are the first biological contamination of the Moon. In fact, even if humans haven’t previously carried any microbes, or possibly even tardigrades themselves, to the Moon, nature may have done so already.
We know that when large enough chunks of rock, say about 1 km diameter or larger, strike one planet, they can eject debris out into space. In fact, we know that there are over 200 Martian meteorites here on Earth. Who’s to say that some Earthly ejecta hasn’t already made its way to the Moon? Perhaps with the uber-hardy tardigrades on board? If that’s the case, then the Arch Mission Foundation’s surreptitious delivery of terrestrial life-forms to the Moon won’t be the first such cross-contamination. The Foundation may just be continuing nature’s work.
The Arch Mission Foundation isn’t focused only on the Moon. They’re taking their job seriously, and are spreading their libraries to different locations, both here on Earth and elsewhere.
In 2018, they launched one of their libraries with the SpaceX Falcon Heavy test launch, which will orbit the Sun for millions of years. That library contains Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series.
Also in 2018, they delivered a copy of the English Wikipedia into Low-Earth Orbit.
In 2019, they’re planning The Earth Library: Eden. It’s an ongoing series of missions to send Arch Libraries to “deep cave systems, underwater locations, mountaintops, bunkers, and other ultra-long duration locations on planet Earth.”
In 2021, they plan to send the second installment of their Lunar Library to the Moon on Astrobiotic’s Peregrine lander.
They have other plans, too. Both the Martian surface and Martian orbit are targets for their Arch Libraries, as are LaGrange points 4 and 5.
It seems like kind of a melancholy task, making back up plans in case Earth civilization can’t sustain itself somehow, and destroys much of its own knowledge. It’s an unpleasant idea, that either our own bedraggled descendants, or perhaps aliens, will have to install this backup and reboot civilization.
On the other hand, given our inability to deal with climate change, maybe a back up for human civilization is simply a practical matter.
But will the aliens make of the dead tardigrades? For now, that’s an open question.
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