space exploration

That one time when water bears traveled to the Moon

Last year, a private company sent a spacecraft to the Moon. The landing was all but smooth, and the spacecraft crashed on the surface. The event would be nothing but a footnote in the history of space exploration if it weren’t for its secret cargo.

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Earth’s natural satellite has lately once again become the center of attention. Governments, space agencies, and private companies have their eyes on our gray companion. In a few days, China will launch the Chang’e 5 mission, attempting to land on the Moon and return with a sample of rocks. The United States’ Artemis program wants to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon and to lay the foundations for sending humans to Mars.

The increased space-related activities lead to the Artemis Accords, an international agreement to lay out some general rules for future exploration, commercial presence, and use of resources in space. So far signed by nine national space agencies, the agreement has already stirred some bad blood. But while the big guns are bickering about who will lead the expanse, an incident last year set a bad precedence for the future of space exploration.

In February 2019, a small robotic lunar lander Beresheet began its journey from Cape Canaveral to the Moon. The first private spacecraft to attempt a landing on the Moon ended up crashing into the surface, probably scattering its payload far and wide. One onboard item was a tiny capsule filled with dormant microscopic organisms known as tardigrades.

Tardigrades are typically 0.5 mm long and boast four pairs of clawed legs. They are often found on lichens and mosses. Credit: Schokraie E. et al. 2012

If you rinse a piece of moss, you’ll likely get yourself a rich sample of tardigrades. These tiny beasts, also called water bears for their chubby appearance, are among nature’s most resilient creatures. Tardigrades possess a fascinating ability to curl up into a dried-up ball. While in this state, they can survive without water for years, are resistant to high temperatures and freezing, and can withstand extreme pressures. They can even survive space-like conditions for short periods. Give a dried-up tardigrade a drop of water, and in a few minutes it will be crawling around as if nothing happened.

Water bears didn’t find themselves on the Beresheet by coincidence. The spacecraft’s payload had been overseen by Nova Spivack, the founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, whose goal is to “archive the knowledge and species of Earth for future generations.” Spivack compiled a digital library containing 30 million pages of information, amongst others the English part of Wikipedia and children’s drawings.

At the very last moment, and unbeknownst to the space agencies involved, he sneaked in a vial with thousands of dried tardigrades. The critters likely survived the crash, to the dismay of scientists and space experts. Has the Moon been irreversibly contaminated with organic material? The tardigrades are actually not the first organic material that we delivered to the Moon—that honor goes to the Apollo missions’ astronauts, who left no less than 96 bags of their poop on the surface. The good news is that the superpowers likely won’t protect the tardigrades for long; they may survive in their dormant state for a while, but eventually they will succumb to the nasty conditions of the outer space. In a way, the Moon is contaminated. But at least we don’t expect a colony of water bears spread all over its surface.

While Spivack didn’t violate any official regulations, his act does raise questions and concerns. Space agencies prefer to keep an inventory of things they ship into space, especially biological material that could jeopardize future search for life in the Solar system. Unfortunately, private companies have bypassed the space agencies’ scrutiny before. Even though such instances call for stronger regulations, agencies and governments probably wouldn’t want to over-regulate the space activities. After all, the regulations won’t hold back people like Spivack. “Technically, I’m the first space pirate,” told Spivack when asked about his smuggling activity.

We have been polluting space since the launch of the first rockets. The proliferation of commercial space businesses will only expedite the inevitable. We should probably set aside the idea of a pristine space untouched by human activity and accept the emerging picture of a space littered with humanity’s vain and caprices.

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