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article imageTardigrades may have survived crash of Israel's lunar spacecraft

By Karen Graham     Aug 6, 2019 in Science
Israel’s attempt to become the first country to land a private spacecraft on the Moon ended in failure on Thursday, April 11, 2019. However, the chances of finding life on the lunar surface has ratcheted up, owing to its cargo of "water bears."
The Israeli Beresheet probe was meant to be the first private lander to touch down on the Moon. Watching the live video stream from mission control in Israel on April 11, it was nip-and-tuck shortly after Beresheet began its descent to the moon's surface about 3 p.m. ET, even though everything had looked good at the beginning of the broadcast.
The lander's main engine, working along in an autonomous mode to set the vessel down softly suddenly went dead about 15 kilometers (9 miles) above the surface. After working to reset the engine, mission control confirmed just minutes later that it had lost contact.
The probe's main mission was to measure the Moon's magnetic field. This information was important to scientists because, at one time, the Moon's core was extremely hot, and this led to some surface rocks becoming magnetized.
Israel's first lunar mission
Israel's first lunar mission
The all-important payload on Beersheet
However, the Guardian notes that beyond all the technology that was lost in the crash of Beersheet onto the lunar surface, there is the lunar probe's unusual cargo to consider. Half a world away, in Los Angeles, California, Nova Spivack was also watching the live feed of the Beersheet landing.
Spivack is the founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to create “a backup of planet Earth." And he had a lot riding on the mission.
In February, the Times of Israel reported the Beresheet lander would be carrying "a Hebrew Bible inscribed with nanotechnology on a small metal circle the size of a five shekel coin, and a time capsule with Israel’s Declaration of Independence and national anthem, the memories of a Holocaust survivor, children’s drawings of space and the Moon, the Traveler’s Prayer and a note from the late former president Shimon Peres."
Don’t stop believing! We came close but unfortunately didn’t succeed with the landing process.
Don’t stop believing! We came close but unfortunately didn’t succeed with the landing process. Selfie taken by Beresheet as it was coming in for a landing.
Besides the list of articles described by the Times of Israel, 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 dehydrated tardigrades — microscopic “water bears” that can survive pretty much any environment, including space.
Did the tardigrades survive the crash?
“Our payload may be the only surviving thing from that mission,” Nova Spivack, the organization’s founder, told Wired magazine.
Spivack, after consulting with the foundation's advisors, is quite confident, based on the spacecraft’s trajectory and the composition of the lunar library, that library — that the DVD-sized disc — may have survived.
“For the first 24 hours we were just in shock,” Spivack says. “We sort of expected that it would be successful. We knew there were risks but we didn’t think the risks were that significant.”
Tardigrades (Milnesium tardigradum) were first discovered in the 18th century by the German zoologist and pastor Johann August Ephraim Goeze. They are microscopic in size and affectionately known as "water bears," and can live in any environment, including scorching deserts, mountain tops and even sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica.
As CNET notes, scientists have succeeded in bringing 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.
Tardigrade found in Cleveland  Ohio  in one of the gutters on a house in 2015.
Tardigrade found in Cleveland, Ohio, in one of the gutters on a house in 2015.
Dmitry Brant
Are the water bears living on the Moon?
Because the Moon is considered lifeless, Nasa’s office of planetary protection does not get too excited if missions spill Earthly organisms on its surface. But that could all change if the world's nations come up with a global agenda for the Moon. The Apollo astronauts left 96 bags of human waste on the lunar surface, and one of these days, someone is going to have to clean it up.
As for the tardigrades, Philippe Reekie, an astrobiologist and Ph.D. student at the University of Edinburgh says it is very possible the dehydrated tardigrades survived the crash. “I would imagine they would survive for some time,” he said. “The main problem with the moon is the vacuum and the high radiation, but tardigrades are proven to survive those conditions.”
Reekie says we must keep in mind that if the tardigrades were in an active state, they likely would have died in the crash. “In their normal state, you can kill them quite easily,” he said. “We accidentally killed loads by accident because we subjected them to the extreme cold too fast.”
Lukasz Kaczmarek, a tardigrade expert, and an astrobiologist at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań offers another opinion, though. He thinks they survived the crash to the lunar surface. “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.
More about Israel, SpaceIL, Tardigrades, Human dna, Beersheet lunar probe
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