A few weeks ago, an Israeli rocket was sent into space. It was supposed to land softly on the moon but, owing to a slight miscalculation, crashed into it instead. This is normally not a big deal; plenty of spacecraft have crashed into the moon, including a bunch of U.S. lunar landing modules that were left in degrading orbits because there was no way to get them home, and a couple of Soviet-era ships that failed to land gracefully. We’ve also purposely smashed hardware into the surface in an attempt to detect water in the bits of moon shot upward from the impact zone. (It worked, by the way.)
What makes the Israeli mishap different, though, is that it contained ten thousand little fellas called “tardigrades,” also affectionately known as “water bears, even though you can barely see one with the naked eye.
Now, as we know, the moon is airless, and temperatures on the surface range between -200 and +200 degrees Fahrenheit. Nothing can possibly live there (which begs the question of why lunar astronauts were quarantined after their return home, but that’s another story). So why would we worry about some terrestrial life invading a place like that, not to mention that the spacecraft they were on crashed, which is not the ideal survival scenario?
As it happens, tardigrades are one of the most remarkable life forms on Earth, so remarkable that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they originated in outer space somewhere and landed here on a meteor.
Tardigrades are less than a millimeter in length, slightly smaller than a salt crystal. They look like I imagine cooties from the planet Zorp might, with weird, perfectly circular mouths and eight “paws” with claw-like spikes sticking out.
Here’s the weird part: Tardigrades are the Rasputins of the animal kingdom. They can be boiled, they can be frozen to temperatures close to absolute zero, they can be bathed in intense gamma rays and dehydrated to Saharan aridity, they can even be slammed with a sledgehammer, and they won’t die. A handful of them were sent into orbit on a FOTON-M3 rocket — on the outside of the rocket — and brought back after ten days in deep vacuum and constant bombardment by solar radiation and unfiltered UV rays. Two-thirds of the little critters survived.
When subjected to these kinds of harsh conditions, water bears go into a weird kind of hibernation called a “tun state.” Their metabolism drops to a ten-thousandth of their normal rate, and they manufacture a chemical that mimics water so that their cells don’t die. They don’t age while in tun, and tardigrades that have been in this kind of suspended animation for thirty years have come back to life when re-immersed in water. (Evolutionary adaption to severe drought conditions is the more likely explanation for how they came about, although the landed-on-a-meteor theory is much cooler.)
Anyway, it’s a very good bet that at least some of the tardigrades that slammed into the moon are still alive. Which is interesting enough in itself, but even more fascinating is why Israeli scientists sent them to the moon in the first place.
It was part of a project to “back up the Earth.”
In the same way that you back up your hard drive in case it fails, the scientists were trying to provide a way to re-boot the whole planet if we succeed in destroying it. So they sent samples of human DNA to the moon, millions of pages from Wikipedia as a knowledge starter, and the one terrestrial life form that stood the best chance of kickstarting a new world. But they didn’t send plain vanilla water bears: They genetically modified their DNA in a way that encoded the location of the Global Seed Vault, a “doomsday repository” 1,300 miles north of the Arctic Circle that contains crop seeds from around the world.
And they had the foresight to package it all up in a way that would be survivable in the event of a crash landing. According to the project leader, the team is virtually certain that everything, including the tardigrades, survived the impact. Of course, the moon itself is not a suitable site for a re-boot, but the thinking is that some sentient being, from someplace “out there,” might come along and take the whole package somewhere else and regenerate life forms to start a new planet.
Let’s hope they do a better job than we’ve been doing.
Lee Gruenfeld is a managing partner of Cholawsky and Gruenfeld Advisory, as well as a principal with the TechPar Group in New York, a boutique consulting firm consisting exclusively of former C-level executives and "Big Four" partners. He was vice president of strategic initiatives for Support.com, senior vice president and general manager of a SaaS division he created for a technology company in Las Vegas, national head of professional services for computing pioneer Tymshare, and a partner in the management consulting practice of Deloitte in New York and Los Angeles. Lee is also the award-winning author of fourteen critically-acclaimed, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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