As It Happens

Ancient, near-indestructible 'water bears' have crash landed on the moon

Thousands of ancient, eight-legged creatures have crash-landed on the moon — and they'll probably be there long after the human species is wiped off the face of the Earth.

Microscopic tardigrades, Earth's most resilient species, were aboard a privately funded Israeli spacecraft

A 3D-rendered illustration of a tardigrade a.k.a. water bear a.k.a. moss piglet. (3Dstock/Shutterstock)
Listen6:43

Transcript

Thousands of ancient, eight-legged, nigh-indestructible creatures have crash-landed on the moon — and they'll probably be there long after the human species is wiped off the face of the Earth.

They're called tardigrades, and 10,000 of them were suspended in artificial amber and loaded onto an Israeli spacecraft that crashed onto the moon in April.

"Tardigrade is one of the, if not the, most durable forms of life that we know of. They're ancient, multicellular, nearly indestructible, microscopic organisms that have survived all five mass extinctions on Earth," Nova Spivack, whose organization shipped the creatures into space, told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"And now there are some of them on the moon."

'Backing up planet Earth'

Spivack​​​​ is the founder and CEO of the Arch Mission Foundation, a non-profit with a mission of "backing up planet Earth."

To this end, they created a "lunar library" with a 30-million-page archive of human history "etched into nickel films," as well as millions of cells, human DNA, and tardigrades in suspended animation.

That library was part of the payload aboard the Israel Aerospace Industries spacecraft Beresheet, which attempted to land on the moon in the spring of this year. 

This photo was taken by the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet about 22 kilometres above the moon's surface as it prepared to land. It crash-landed after its engine shut off before reaching the surface. (SpaceIL)

The mission was a flub. Instead of landing, it crashed onto the surface. But a recent analysis suggests the impact was not great enough to vaporize the ship's payload, Spivack said. 

"Best case, our payload is completely intact resting somewhere on a slope on the side of a mountain on the moon. Worst case, maybe it was shattered into some number of pieces," Spivack said.

Either way, he said, "it wouldn't kill or destroy these tardigrades."

Also known as 'water bears' or 'moss piglets' 

That's because tardigrades are tough.

Colloquially known as "water bears" or "moss piglets," these creatures are believed to have been on Earth for about 500 million years. 

They can be found in water and moss all over the world, grow to about 0.55 millimetres and are considered the most resilient form of life on our planet.

A figure of a tardigrade, or water bear, from a scientific paper by the National Institute for Polar Research. (National Institute for Polar Research/ScienceDirect.com)

They can live up to 30 years without water and survive in the extremes — including the vacuum of space or in the farthest depths of our oceans.

When they're deprived of water, they shrivel up and enter a deep state of suspended animation, dramatically slowing their metabolism to the degree that they appear dead. 

But when you reintroduce them to water — even years or decades later — they reanimate.

'Frozen in time, essentially, forever'

The ones on the moon are still in that suspended state, Spivack said.

"They wouldn't be able to move around on the moon or reproduce independently," he said. "They're in a state of suspended animation, frozen in time, essentially, forever on the moon unless they are recovered."

That has some people in the scientific community upset. 

"What it means is the so-called 'pristine environment' of the moon has been broken," Monica Grady, an Open University professor of planetary and space sciences, told the BBC.

"I don't think anybody would have got permission to distribute dehydrated tardigrades over the surface of the moon. So it's not a good thing."

Spivack shrugged off those concerns, noting that all space missions, both private and public, leave things behind.

"We're certainly not the first to land biological organisms on the moon. We're simply the first to land organisms that are technically still alive," he said.

The Arch Mission Foundation has no intention of retrieving its lost critters.

"Recovering them would be a painstaking exercise with tweezers and a microscope sifting through perhaps hundreds of kilometres of lunar dust," he said. "But if somebody wants to do it, we support them in that effort."

Otherwise, he said the water bears will probably be there long after we're gone.

"One possibility is that, you know, life on Earth gets wiped out in the sixth great extinction that's happening now, or the next one, or the one after that," Spivack said.

"And at some point in the future, some other form of life evolves, goes to the moon, finds the lunar library and recovers tardigrades."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Nicole Mortillaro. Interview with Nova Spivack produced by Richard Raycraft. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.