If there was ever a story in need of a “What could possibly go wrong?” lead-in, this is it. A story broke this week that an Israeli spacecraft which crashed on the moon in April was carrying tardigrades – those indestructible little eight-legged water bears that have been found on Earth in extreme conditions where no other life forms can survive. They’re also the first Earth life forms to survive in the vacuum of space. And … get your “What could possibly go wrong?” sign ready (or use Murphy’s) … they appear to have survived the crash on the Moon. (Hold up sign now , then sigh loudly.)
“We believe the chances of survival for the tardigrades… are extremely high.”
Wired broke this story on August 5th, which is almost four months to the day after Nova Spivack and his colleges at the Arch Mission Foundation watched a live feed from Israel’s mission control center for Beresheet, a ship attempting to become the first private spacecraft to land on the Moon. It crashed, but that wasn’t Spivack’s fault. However, it was definitely of concern to him because his part of the mission through the Arch Mission Foundation was to create a “backup of planet Earth” on the Moon in the form of a DVD-sized digital archive containing 30 million pages of information (let’s call it a ‘life on Earth’ instruction manual) and … get ready to hold up that sign again … human DNA samples and thousands of dehydrated tardigrades.
“We sent enough DNA to regenerate life on Earth, if necessary. Although it would require more advanced biotech than we have to do that. At least our DNA is offsite now. But note that cells and DNA cannot survive or reproduce on the moon. Yet if retrieved they could be useful.”
Retrieved by whom? Or what? They could definitely be useful if they survived intact with the library/instruction manual. And that is precisely what Nova Spivack confirmed to Wired.
“About the tardigrades in the Lunar Library: Some are sealed in epoxy with 100 million human, plant and microorganism cells. Some are encapsulated onto the sticky side of a 1cm square piece of Kapton tape that is sealed inside the disc stack. They cannot reproduce on the moon.”
As cries of alarm arose following the Wired interview, Spivack tried to cover his exposed posterior by explaining in tweets that, although the medium they are stored on survived, the tardigrades “cannot reproduce on the moon.” Which would be comforting information if they weren’t stuck to a disc containing instructions on how to make them reproduce.
If name Arch Mission Foundation sounds familiar, they’re the people who put a copy Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy on a disc and stuck it in the glove compartment of Elon Musk’s Tesla, which is now far out in space. The lunar library on the Moon has much, much more.
“The lunar library on the Beresheet lander consisted of 25 layers of nickel, each only a few microns thick. The first four layers contain roughly 60,000 high-resolution images of book pages, which include language primers, textbooks, and keys to decoding the other 21 layers. Those layers hold nearly all of the English Wikipedia, thousands of classic books, and even the secrets to David Copperfield’s magic tricks.”
Wikipedia! That has everything! Good thing it’s not completely accurate, right? RIGHT? Even scarier, stuck to the disc was a chuck of synthetic epoxy similar to the resin we find on Earth containing million-year-old fossilized insects that are being extracted for their preserved DNA. Spivack and his team put their own hair follicles and blood samples in the resin, along with some of the dehydrated tardigrades. The rest of them they smeared on a tape that was attached to the outside of the disc. That means it’s already exposed on the lunar surface. Hold up that sign again.
“Our job, as the hard backup of this planet, is to make sure that we protect our heritage—both our knowledge and our biology. We have to sort of plan for the worst.”
That’s the ‘noble cause’ Spivack uses to justify the Arch Mission Foundation and the tardigrades now waiting to be revived by the first alien who can read the disc – placing the essence of humanity in a safe place should that same humanity destroy itself on Earth.
Care to comment, Mr. Murphy?