Mon. Dec 9th, 2019

Tardígrados: The rocambolesque history of water bears sent to the Moon to preserve civilization | Science

A week ago, American investor Nova Spivack surprised the world by announcing in the magazine Wired that had sent animals to the moon aboard the Israeli probe Beresheet. The travelers in question are microscopic beings known as bears of water or tardigrades, capable of surviving at temperatures of 200 degrees below zero or 150 above zero, of resuscitating after ten years without water or of resisting the extreme conditions of space travel without scuba diving. . Last April, Beresheet aspired to become the first probe driven by private investors to land on the Moon, but ended up crashed. Surviving that impact was unlikely, but if someone could do it they were water bears.

As Spivack acknowledged in the interview, the idea of ​​launching tardigrades with the Israeli probe was something that emerged shortly before sending the package that his organization to the Middle East, The Arch Mission Foundation, I wanted to place in space. In principle, the content consisted of a "lunar library" with 60,000 high-resolution images of classic book pages, almost complete English Wikipedia and the secrets of David Copperfield's magic tricks.

The decision to include DNA samples, tardigrades and millions of cells from various organisms was taken at the last moment

This information is part of Spivack's plan to disseminate knowledge throughout the solar system with the goal that, within thousands or even millions of years, the ideas or information necessary to rebuild human civilization are found in as many places in the universe as may be possible. "The more (libraries) that are sent, the more likely it is that some will survive and be discovered in the distant future," he explains. The Arch Mission Foundation has already sent the novel trilogy Foundation by Isaac Asimov aboard the Tesla Roadster that Elon Musk put into orbit around the Sun in 2018.

The American entrepreneur decided to include at the last minute DNA samples of 24 people, including his own, glued to the nickel layers that preserve the images with the library that contains the knowledge to restore civilization. In addition, they included samples of sacred places in the world and some dehydrated tardigrades. Then, they spread a few thousand more of these water bears glued to the masking tape that covered the lunar library to protect it.

After the clash of Beresheet against the Moon, it is difficult to ensure that microscopic animals survived – although Spivack maintains hope – and there is no plan to approach them and bring them back to Earth to rehydrate them and see if they can survive this extreme experience. The founder of The Arch Mission Foundation explains to Matter which, in addition to the tardigrades, sent 100 million cells from various organisms embedded in an epoxy resin in order to test their methods to preserve biological material in space.

In addition to improvisation in sending biological material to the Moon, the Spivack project has had other unorthodox features. Asked by this newspaper about the details of sending tardigrades to the Moon, Oded Aharonson, scientific director of the mission, acknowledges: "I have not taken part in this decision." He also suggests that he did not know that these animals were going to be sent aboard Beresheet and that he prefers “not to talk about this issue.” Spivack, for his part, says they did not discuss sending biological material to the Moon with the SpaceIL team, the company responsible for the mission. "We are a separate organization that bought space to carry a load," he says. Asked if among those responsible for the mission someone knew in detail the content of that load, Spivack refuses to expand information. " That is all we can say, ”he says.

The fear that these super-resistant animals pollute the Moon would be unfounded. Bernard Foing, a scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA) and director of the International Lunar Group, considers "likely that these organisms in the Beresheet have not survived the impact and subsequent exposure to ultraviolet radiation." Foing points out that ESA itself, which has already sent tardigrades into space, has planned to take these animals to the Moon.

Gerhard Kminek, responsible for planetary protection of the European Space Agency, clarifies that, unlike Mars, protected so as not to spoil with terrestrial contamination the possibility of finding signs of biological activity, “there are no technical requirements for planetary protection for the Moon and no there are limitations from the point of view of biological or organic pollution ”. The only recommendation of the Space Research Committee (COSPAR) – the international body responsible for the protection of outer space – would be to report on the organic elements sent before six months have passed since launch. "The clash of this mission with biological material did not violate any technical requirements for planetary protection," says Kminek.

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