"SEM image of Milnesium tardigradum in active state" by Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. / CC BY 2.5

Why Stowaway Creatures On The Moon Confound International Space Law

Aug 20, 2019

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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One comment on “Why Stowaway Creatures On The Moon Confound International Space Law”

  • That it was a package of tardigrades is largely irrelevant (contaminating the moon is more-or-less a separate issue). Arch Mission Foundation put a package aboard without notifying the operator of the craft. That is not good enough. Imagine if you ordered a book from Amazon, and they decided to put some insects in with it. You, the courier company, and your local environmental agency would all be wanting Amazon to be blocked/censured . So Arch should be too; after this, they may as well shut up shop, because no-one is going to accept any payloads from them. Report abuse

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