Science 3 min read

Tardigrades Crash-Landed on the Moon and Probably Survived

The Moon may now have new inhabitants, in the form of tiny tardigrades, who arrived aboard an Israeli spacecraft that crash-landed on its surface.

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Setting its eyes on the Moon, Israel wanted to join the U.S., Russia, and China, to become the fourth country to send a lunar landing mission. The project was fully funded by private investors — a world’s first.

Eventually, the Beresheet spacecraft was launched successfully last February.

The Beresheet lander did arrive on the Moon last April. However, it didn’t land softly as expected. Instead, it came crashing onto the lunar surface, making the historic mission an utter failure.

During its short mission, Beresheet carried a digital archive containing rich information about human history, culture, human DNA samples, and more.

Its cargo also included thousands of microscopic passengers: tardigrades.

Tardigrades are among the toughest lifeforms in the known universe. They could survive the harshest environments, including space!

Because of their unique survival characteristic, people are now asking — how’s it going to be with tardigrades stranded on the moon?

Lunar Tardigrades: Where are they now?

Tardigrades are also called water bears, and these tiny critters do share some resemblance with bears. Measuring 0.002 to 0.05 inches long, they have defined bodies and heads, with eight legs, claws, and all.

But don’t let these nearly microscopic size species fool you! Moss piglets are as resilient as you can get.

A type of extremophiles, tardigrades prefer wet habitats, but they can also live virtually anywhere on the planet. That’s regardless of the harsh conditions, such as extreme temperatures, pressure, radiation, and even the space vacuum.

It’s no surprise that they don’t figure on any endangered animal list!

Tardigrades are the only known inhabitants of Earth’s upper atmospheric layer, the stratosphere. We’re talking of that cold and dry region in the atmosphere that’s constantly flooded by cosmic radiation.

Some astrobiologists think tardigrades could be spreading the seeds of life across the solar system and space beyond.

So this begs the question: can tardigrades survive the Moon?

By all accounts, yes.

The population of tardigrades that went all the way to the Moon only to crash with the lunar lander might still be alive. These extraordinarily tough creatures are likely to be in cryptobiosis, a physiological state of suspended animation.

They retract their legs and curl into a ball, called tun. Then, they shut down their metabolism and let their bodies dry up for hours while waiting for wetter conditions to rehydrate and regain their full functions.

They can remain in dehydrated states for at least five years.

This is how tardigrades survive. Basically, they don’t make do with what they got. Instead, they adopt a death-like state until they get what they need.

This way, they can survive up to 30 years or more without food, water, or even oxygen.

It makes sense!

Humans can survive without water for 3-4 days maximum. That’s because we can’t dehydrate our bodies and bring our metabolism to about 0.01 percent of normal levels as tardigrades do.

But did we need to send tardigrades to the Moon in the first place? For all we know, there could already be tardigrades on the Moon!

Because after all, the Apollo astronauts have cross-contaminated the environment with about 100 bags of human waste. The biocontamination risks should not be ignored, even if the Moon is considered lifeless.

However, even though tardigrades are super-tough, they are far from being immortal. There’s still a possibility that they could have met their demise upon crashing on the Moon if they were in their active state.

Read More: Extremophiles In Our Stratosphere Might Be Key To Discovering Alien Life

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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