Friday 9 August 2019

Tardigrades... In... Space!...

The Beresheet moon lander was a spacecraft that came to within a few hundred feet of carrying out the third soft landing on the moon this century when it sadly and mysteriously broke down. Its instruments and communication suddenly failed and by the time they were restarted the craft could not be stopped crashing onto the lunar surface. (Unmanned missions to the moon are far less reliable than manned missions. The lunar excursions of all six Apollo landings thankfully went without any major hitch, see here for details: Beresheet, named after the first line in the Torah, translated in the Book of Genesis as "In the beginning", was the first ever moon mission to originate from a unique public-private partnership that evolved out of the Google X Prize and was based in Israel, see: It was designed as a very simple mission. The lander was intended to carry out a few basic actions for just a few hours. It had onboard a time capsule with items of Jewish and Israeli culture and history. It had an Israeli flag on it and the words of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. However, at the last minute somebody decided to add to the capsule some human DNA samples and a collection of tardigrades. Taking living beings into space is not new, in fact the first earth being to enter earth orbit was a dog called Laika on Sputnik 2 in 1957. In 2019 the Chang'e lander took seeds to the moon to try and grow them in an experiment, see: Tardigrades, often called "water bears", are very small and sometimes mistaken for insects when they are in fact their own phylum. A phylum is a basic category of animals that incorporates many classes; such as vertebrates, which includes mammals, reptiles and fish etc; or arthropods, which includes insects, scorpions and spiders etc. Tardigrades are famous for being some of the hardiest animals on earth. They can survive extremes of heat, cold, dryness and radiation that no other animal can. They are therefore very common and have been found all over the planet from deserts to icecaps to the depths of the oceans. They are very ancient and predate the dinosaurs by almost four hundred million years; and, at the risk of sounding morbid, they will definitely be on the scene long after humans have bowed out. Most interestingly, they can endure a vacuum and have persisted in deep space for up to ten days. This leads to the worrying question; when Beresheet crashed, what happened to its tardigrade passengers? The time capsule may well have broken apart by the impact and the thousands of tardigrades would have then scattered onto the moon's surface where they would have crawled around like a swarm of ants. Source: Israel Aerospace Industries has already started work on a "Beresheet 2" mission which will hopefully be more successful than the first one. Will it have time to check on the tardigrades?

It is likely that they are still alive now because whenever tardigrades finally hit the ceiling of their endurance abilities they allow themselves to dry up and enter a dormant state, similar to hibernation. They can survive in this existence of suspended animation for an indefinite period of time; although it has been measured in laboratory conditions as ten years maximum. When the conditions become more favourable the tardigrades then wake up and continue as normal. Therefore it might be possible in the future to revive the little water bears if a future moon mission can locate them. The worst case scenario is a few of them might mutate as a result of the radiation and then evolve into something else entirely. This could be very hazardous for future lunar explorers if the new life forms are hostile. This mock-advert for baked beans is a very extreme example of possibilities, see: It would be more realistic to wonder if we might see the emergence of some kind of toxic parasite. Or perhaps we needn't be concerned because space is already abundant with life. This is the notion of panspermia, literally "seeds everywhere" which states that outer space is not a dead, cold empty void, but is in fact packed with life and life-giving material, see here for details: Some UFO sightings could also be categorized more as possible living creatures themselves, not just inorganic vehicles for living creatures. The phenomenon of "space critters" has always interested me, as reported by several astronauts such as Story Musgrave, see: The work of the UFOlogist Nik Hayes also indicates that he is attracting living beings, not just artificial objects, see: I've always said that earth is not this tiny blue-green speck in blackness, a minute oasis of life in an infinite cosmic desert. It is really just one polyp in a universal coral reef, a lush pond in a celestial rainforest billions of light-years across.

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