According to an article published Monday in the American magazine Wired, the Bereshit lunar probe carried micro-archives the size of an optical disc containing DNA samples, millions of pages of data and thousands of dehydrated tardigrades – microscopic animals called water bears.
Tardigrades are virtually indestructible beings able to withstand extreme radiation, sweltering heat, the coldest temperatures in the universe, and decades without food.
The archive is an original idea of the Arch Mission Foundation, the American investor Nova Spivack, whose mission is to create a “safeguard of planet Earth”. Tardigrades, which were added at the last minute, are particularly tough creatures known to survive for years. They are found all over the Earth, and have already survived in space.
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Bereshit crashed on the Moon while trying to land there a few months ago, and with it, the hopes of the engineers who had been working on this project for years crashed.
“We believe that the survival chances of tardigrades are extremely high,” Nova Spivack, co-founder of the Arch Mission Foundation responsible for their journey, told AFP after analyzing the trajectory of the spacecraft and the composition of the device in which the micro-animals were stored.
The association is dedicated to the dissemination of human knowledge and the biology of the Earth throughout the solar system, a kind of “Encyclopedia Galactica”, as imagined by science fiction author Isaac Asimov.
“Tardigrades are great to store because they are microscopic, multicellular, and one of the most enduring life forms on planet Earth,” Nova Spivack explained, adding that small creatures under a millimeter had been dehydrated and then “locked in epoxy glue, and should be able to be resuscitated in the future”.
The tardigrades were stored in a “lunar library,” a DVD-like nanotechnology device containing an archive of 30 million pages of human history searchable under a microscope, as well as human DNA.
This one would also have surely withstood the accident according to Mr. Spivack, but would not be him the first genetic code nor the first form of life to be deposited on the celestial body, preceded by the DNA and the microbes contained in the hundreds of bags of excrement and urine left by American astronauts during the Apollo rocket moon landings from 1969 to 1972.
The craft had correctly started its moon landing, but a few kilometers from its destination, the main engine encountered technical problems, and the craft could not slow down in time to land smoothly.
“For the first 24 hours we were in shock,” Nova Spivack tells Wired. “In a way, we expected it to be a success. We knew there were risks, but we didn’t think they were significant. “
However, he believed that the archive probably survived the crash, at least partially, and that tardigrades could potentially wake up from their vegetative state.
The probe cost $ 100 million, far less than the spacecraft sent to the moon by the great powers – the United States, Russia, China – cost.
Project Bereshit was a joint initiative of Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, funded almost entirely by famous Jewish philanthropists including Morris Khan, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Lynn Schusterman and others. .
In 2017, the plot of the science fiction series “Star Trek: Discovery” was about a giant tardigrade used to navigate in space. It is not known whether the next Israeli missions will be carried out by tardigrades.
No rescue mission
Also known as the water bear cub, these eight-legged, larval-like animals can live in water or on land, survive temperatures ranging from 150 to -272 degrees Celsius, at pressures almost -nulles in space or crashing into the Mariana Trench and come back to life after being dried up for decades.
If they weren’t wiped out by an explosion, they could in theory survive the living conditions of the lunar surface, extreme temperatures and minuscule pressure, William Miller, a tardigrade expert at AFP, told AFP. Baker University, Kansas.
“But to become active, to grow, feed and reproduce, they would need water, air and food”, which makes the formation of a colony of these beasts impossible, he said. -He specifies.
NASA astrobiologist Cassie Conley believes their exact survival time will depend on the condition of the impact site and the temperatures to which they are exposed.
“If they are not too hot, it is possible that they can survive long enough (several years),” she told AFP.
“I would be more worried that the animals would be affected by the toxic chemicals in the epoxy or the glue” used to store them, rather than the conditions in space, she added.
But even if the creatures survive for several years, no crewed missions are planned to the Moon until NASA’s Artemis program in 2024 at the South Pole – far from the Bereshit crash site in the Sea of Serenity, the animals will therefore probably never come home.
“It is unlikely that they will be saved in time, so I think that even if they survive, they are doomed,” Rafael Alves Batista, a physicist at the University of Sao Paulo, co-author of AFP told AFP. ‘an article on the extreme resistance of tardigrades, in 2017.
The Times of Israel staff contributed to this article.