Tardigrades, affectionately known as water bears, are microscopic animals that can survive in almost any environment. We already know it’s possible for scientists to bring tardigrades back to life after a 30-year deep freeze. As “extremophiles,” tardigrades can shut down their metabolism and survive in hostile conditions for long periods. But can they survive in space, more specifically on the moon?
Back in April, an Israeli spacecraft called Beresheet, which carried thousands of dehydrated tardigrades (among other cargo), crashed on the moon. Some people wondered if the water bears could survive.
IT WAS JUST before midnight on April 11 and everyone at the Israel Aerospace Industries mission control center in Yehud, Israel, had their eyes fixed on two large projector screens. On the left screen was a stream of data being sent back to Earth by Beresheet, its lunar lander, which was about to become the first private spacecraft to land on the moon. The right screen featured a crude animation of Beresheet firing its engines as it prepared for a soft landing in the Sea of Serenity. But only seconds before the scheduled landing, the numbers on the left screen stopped. Mission control had lost contact with the spacecraft, and it crashed into the moon shortly thereafter.
Half a world away, Nova Spivack watched a livestream of Beresheet’s mission control from a conference room in Los Angeles. As the founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to create “a backup of planet Earth,” Spivack had a lot at stake in the Beresheet mission. The spacecraft was carrying the foundation’s first lunar library, a DVD-sized archive containing 30 million pages of information, human DNA samples, and thousands of tardigrades, those microscopic “water bears” that can survive pretty much any environment—including space.
But when the Israelis confirmed Beresheet had been destroyed, Spivack was faced with a distressing question: Did he just smear the toughest animal in the known universe across the surface of the moon?
Tardigrades may have survived spacecraft crashing on moon
The odds of finding life on the moon have suddenly rocketed skywards. But rather than elusive alien moonlings, the beings in question came from Earth and were spilled across the landscape when a spacecraft crashed into the surface.
The Israeli Beresheet probe was meant to be the first private lander to touch down on the moon. And all was going smoothly until mission controllers lost contact in April as the robotic craft made its way down. Beyond all the technology that was lost in the crash, Beresheet had an unusual cargo: a few thousand tiny tardigrades, the toughest animals on Earth.
Now, the organisation behind the tardigrades’ trip, the US-based Arch Mission Foundation – whose goal is to find a backup for Earth – has said the organisms may well have shrugged off the collision. “Our payload may be the only surviving thing from that mission,” Nova Spivack, the organisation’s founder, told Wired magazine.
Tardigrades have fascinated scientists since their discovery in the 18th century by the German zoologist and pastor Johann August Ephraim Goeze. The millimetre-long animals, sometimes known as water bears or moss piglets after their favoured environment and food, resemble cheerful eight-legged maggots wearing distinctly sphincter-like faces.
But it is not their appearance that has made their name. Tardigrades are considered the hardiest animals on Earth. They have been found on mountain tops, in scorching deserts, and lurking in subglacial lakes in Antarctica. In his book The Hidden Powers of Animals, Dr Karl Shuker claimed the beasts survived being frozen in liquid helium and being boiled at 149C.
The tardigrade’s secret is the ability to shrivel into a seed-like pod, expelling nearly all of its water and slashing its metabolism. In this “tun” state, the animals can hunker down and survive conditions that would normally be swiftly fatal. In 2007, scientists discovered that inactive tardigrades are so tough they can survive the harsh radiation and frigid vacuum of space travel.
And so it came to be that there is life on the moon, probably. Lukasz Kaczmarek, a tardigrade expert and astrobiologist at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, said the animals may well have survived the crash landing. “Tardigrades can survive pressures that are comparable to those created when asteroids strike Earth, so a small crash like this is nothing to them,” he said. The animals could potentially survive on the moon for years, he added.
Dehydrated tardigrades have been revived after years in an inactive state by plunging them into water. Once rehydrated, the animals become active again and feed and reproduce as normal. There is little chance of that happening to those that are lost in space, however. “They cannot colonise the moon because there is no atmosphere and no liquid water,” Kaczmarek said. “But it could be possible to bring them back to Earth and then add the water. They should resurrect.”
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