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Space bears

Picture of Rodrigo Valdivieso

Rodrigo Valdivieso

Unmanned Aerial Systems Expert

We already know that Mars is the only known planet inhabited entirely by robots (see the “Water on Mars” article), but this year (2019) it has also been officially released that our beloved Moon is known to be inhabited by space bears.

But let’s start at the beginning…

On  February 22ND 2019, the companies IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries) and SpaceIL launched the Beresheet (Genesis) mission, together with a communications satellite, aboard a Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket from Cape Canaveral, with a total budget of around 100 million USD.

A space mission that ended in catastrophe may give rise to a second mission, aiming to exploit the salvageable results of the former.

The lunar landing module consisted of 150 kg of equipment (almost 600 Kg  fuel included), which incorporated a magnetometer to measure the local magnetic field and a laser retroreflector for precise measurements of the distance between the Earth and the Moon, as well as other “exotic” items, such as the “lunar archive” module. This module, funded by the Arch Mission Foundation, consisted of a package of biological material intended to be stored as an emergency biological reserve in the event of life being eradicated from our planet.

The mission entered lunar orbit onApril 4th this year, with the intention of landing on Mare Serenitatis a week later, where it would remain active for just a couple of days in order to carry out its scientific experiments. As the equipment was designed without any thermal control, most systems would degrade after two days due to the heat produced from their own operation. The laser reflector would be the only unit that could continue to operate for decades, due to its simplicity and passive operation.

In order to perform a correct moon landing, the spacecraft must complete the complicated phase of descent from a stable lunar orbit to the surface of the moon, without any mistakes or equipment malfunctions. During this phase, the aircraft’s speed with respect to the lunar surface has to be reduced from about 8,500 Km/h (orbital speed) to zero. This phase is usually quite critical, because changes of just a few tenths of a second in the timing of ignition of the retrorockets that brake the spacecraft signify a large difference in position and speed at the point of contact with the ground. Such changes can therefore mean the difference between a soft landing and a catastrophic and violent total destruction of the spacecraft.

Unfortunately, it was precisely during this phase that two catastrophic failures took place: the inertial unit of the ship (the sensor in charge of controlling that the deceleration was being carried out at the correct pace and in a manner compatible with a safe landing) failed for a few seconds, which resulted in a premature retrorocket shutdown. At the same time, communications with Earth were briefly cut off, which prevented the manual reactivation of the retrorocket. When communication was restored, the retrorocket was restarted, and descent speed and altitude telemetry data were received. Unfortunately, nothing could be done… The descent speed was too high, and there was not enough distance remaining to the moon’s surface. It was impossible to brake in such a short time and in so little space. Inevitably, the spacecraft crashed into the moon’s surface. The spacecraft proceeded to do the only thing that could be done in that situation seconds before its inevitable destruction: it took a selfie. The images transmitted just before the collision are very… striking.

But the incident doesn’t end there: the Arch Mission Foundation module also contained a collection of thousands of live tardigrades that for sure have safely survived the impact, and they are now scattered over the moon’s surface.

Tardigrades are microscopic multicellular animals that are massively abundant and present in virtually every habitat on our planet. Because of their subjectively chubby appearance and stubby legs, since their discovery they have been called “water bears” (hence the title of this article).

The reason these “bears” were chosen as part of the mission is that they are the most resilient living beings known. They can survive in a state of suspended animation for tens of years in space vacuum at temperatures ranging from -273 °C (almost zero Kelvin) to 150 °C, and withstand doses of radiation 100 times higher than those that would kill any other living being. Their reanimation takes place when environmental conditions return to comparatively normal levels.

The tardigrades now on the moon travelled there in a dehydrated state that is a fairly normal part of their life cycles, which is used to overcome unfavourable conditions. However, the main impediments to their reanimation on the Moon are the vacuum of space (lack of liquid water available for reanimation) and radiation (which will slowly kill the survivors). Subsequently, the absence of food would prevent potential reanimated survivors from thriving and reproducing.

This situation has given rise to considerable controversy, and has prompted several groups to threaten legal action against the mission operator, citing the potential environmental repercussions of this biological “spill”. However, there is no legal proceeding that can even be initiated, which shows that these complaints are simple public exposure manoeuvres. Firstly, the only laws that prevail on our satellite are those prohibiting nuclear proliferation and armament (Outer Space Treaty of 1967). Secondly, it is very unlikely that the tardigrades will emerge out of their lethargic state without external help. What’s more, enormous quantities of terrestrial bacteria of all kinds have probably already reached the moon’s surface over the course of prior missions (for example, bacteria travelling inside lunar capsules or probes, and human gut bacteria that may still be in a dormant state among the packaged and abandoned faeces of the Apollo mission).

The positive side of this failed experiment is that it can become part of another future experiment that will gather up the remains of the former and investigate the survival rates of these unfortunate bears. Something similar happened when the Apollo 12 mission landed in 1969 near where Surveyor 3 had landed two years earlier, and picked up its camera to bring it back to Earth. Upon arrival, they discovered that the camera was covered in Streptococcus mitis, which were then successfully revived after two years of travel to and from the Moon, and exposure to the vacuum of space, extreme temperatures and intense radiation.


Osos espaciales / Tardígrados en la Luna
Beresheet probe impact site, photographed by NASA

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