Crashed Beresheet lander may have colonised the moon with 'water bears' from Earth

Tardigrades, or water bears, can survive without water for at least 10 years, as per recent research.


On 11 April 2019, Israeli space company SpaceIL attempted to land the first privately-funded mission on to the Moon safely. While the mission failed in the final moments before it reached the surface, it seems the spacecraft might have tainted the moon's surface with tardigrades, or water bears, from Earth.

The Beresheet lander crashed on to the moon's surface, and may have become the first country to colonize an extraterrestrial body in the process… maybe.

Beresheet had a special package onboard — a "lunar library" put together by the Arch Mission Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to create "a backup of planet Earth." The library contained 30 million pages of human history, an optical disc with human DNA samples and thousands of dehydrated tardigrades — microscopic, vacuum-tolerant microbes.

Crashed Beresheet lander may have colonised the moon with water bears from Earth

Tardigrades are the hardiest known animals on Earth, resistant to both vacuum and space.

These microscopic animals are called 'water bears' or 'moss piglets', and they're the most resistant lifeform known to humankind. Worldwide, there are more than 1,000 such species of tardigrades on the planet, the most recent member of which was found in a parking lot in Japan.

Tardigrades were added to SpaceIL's Beresheet mission at the very last minute, according to The Times of Israel. These incredibly hardy organisms are known to survive in a dehydrated state for years on end. The Earth is teeming with these creatures, which can survive even in the harshest climates — including the vacuum of space.

When it was time to land, the Beresheet spacecraft initiated its landing sequence successfully, but only a few kilometres above the surface, the main engine failed and the spacecraft couldn't brake in time to make the soft-landing it was planning to. Instead, it crashed into the surface, as seen in these mesmerising before-and-after shots of its landing site, captured by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

While many experts expected the mission to succeed, news of the spacecraft's crash landing raised an important question: did scientists just smeared the surface of the moon with the toughest known animal the universe?

Based on an analysis of the spacecraft's trajectory and the contents of the lunar library, founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, Nova Spivack, is rather confident that the library survived mostly or almost entirely intact, according to a Wired report.

Tardigrades can survive for anywhere between days and years, to be revived by a couple of doses of water (rehydration). In their dehydrated, dormant state, all the metabolic reactions in the cells of tardigrades are stopped. Molecules of water are replaced by protein, effectively turning these adorable microbes into an inanimate glass-like blob.

While tardigrades can survive water-free for 10 years, the lunar library is designed to last for millions. Only now are scientists started to gauge how these critters survive in the most unforgiving of environments — space, most of all. Learning about this could point to a means of rehydrating them after far longer periods of dormancy.

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