17 August 2019

Wired: “SpaceIL’s Crashed Spacecraft spilled Tardigrades on the Moon”

A scanning electron micrograph of a water bear. Like regular bears, tardigrades have claws, which help in locomotion. Image: Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden

Half a world away, Nova Spivack watched a livestream of Beresheet’s mission control from a conference room in Los Angeles. As the founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to create “a backup of planet Earth”, Spivack had a lot at stake in the Beresheet mission. 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 tardigrades, those microscopic “water bears” that can survive pretty much any environment—including space.

But when the Israelis confirmed Beresheet had been destroyed, Spivack was faced with a distressing question: Did he just smear the toughest animal in the known universe across the surface of the moon?

Daniel Oberhaus

Fascinating story – especially the little known detail about the Apollo astronauts below. It’s unlikely that tardigrades would interfere with the Moon’s environment – considering they could have arrived there without human intervention – but I still think the protocols for bringing Earth life into space should be more restrictive. As we are gradually returning to space with private initiatives alongside the existing large national programs, the risk of contaminating pristine worlds increases, if not deliberately, then by negligence and accident.

Fortunately for Spivack and the Arch Mission Foundation, spewing DNA and water bears across the moon is totally legal. NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection classifies missions based on the likelihood that their targets are of interest to our understanding of life. As such, missions destined for places like Mars are subject to more stringent sterilization processes than missions to the Moon, which has few of the necessary conditions for life and isn’t at risk of contamination. In fact, Spivack isn’t even the first to leave DNA on the moon. This honor belongs to the Apollo astronauts, who left nearly 100 bags of human feces on the lunar surface before they returned to Earth.

It turns out there’s more to this story, as the reporting below uncovers that the tardigrades were ‘smuggled’ aboard, added at the last minute without seeking approval or informing any of the regulatory agencies. I hope there will be some consequences, such as denying them further launches, to discourage others from pulling similar stunts in the future.

The mishap does raise many questions about the protocols surrounding how space-bound payloads are approved. Technically, international guidelines on interplanetary contamination don’t prohibit sending biological matter and organisms to the lunar surface, since most living creatures can’t survive there. But no governing body had a say in the tardigrade matter at all. The tardigrades were added to the lander by a US nonprofit called the Arch Mission Foundation, whose goal is to create a digital and biological “backup of planet Earth” out in space. The team had approval to add a digital library on the lander, but they didn’t inform Israel or the United States about the added water bears.

We didn’t tell them we were putting life in this thing, Nova Spivack, co-founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, tells Mashable. Space agencies don’t like last-minute changes. So we just decided to take the risk. Spivack did not want to give further comment to The Verge.

Loren Grush

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