By Loren Grush
month, space enthusiasts were shocked to learn that an Israeli lunar lander that crashed into the Moon’s surface in April actually had some passengers aboard: a tiny capsule filled with dehydrated microscopic organisms known as tardigrades. These little “water bears,” known to withstand very extreme environments, may have survived the wreck. Almost no one knew they were on board until a recent report in Wired revealed they had been added to the mission last minute — and without any governmental approval.
The news was met with a mixture of surprise and dismay, with some fearing that these lifeforms could contaminate the Moon. The good news is that’s probably not going to happen. “At best, the tardigrades will survive in a dormant state for some period of time depending on their level of exposure to vacuum, temperature cycling, and radiation,” Lisa Pratt, NASA’s planetary protection officer, writes in an email to The Verge.
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.
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