Crashed Israeli lander may have seeded moon with ‘water bears’
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Crashed Israeli lander may have seeded moon with ‘water bears’

Beresheet spacecraft was loaded with thousands of microscopic, vacuum-resistant tardigrades, report says

A Tardigrade, also known as a water bear, is a microscopic life-form that can survive in the vacuum of space. (iStockPhoto)
A Tardigrade, also known as a water bear, is a microscopic life-form that can survive in the vacuum of space. (iStockPhoto)

When the Beresheet lunar lander crashed on the moon in April, Israel may have become the first country to successfully colonize an extraterrestrial body… sort of.

According to a Monday report in Wired, the spacecraft was carrying a micro-archive the size of an optical disc containing DNA samples, millions of pages of data and thousands of dehydrated tardigrades — microscopic animals known popularly as water bears.

The archive was the brainchild of American venture capitalist Nova Spivack’s Arch Mission Foundation, whose mission is to create what it calls “a backup of planet Earth.” The tardigrades, which were added at the last minute, are incredibly hardy creatures and have been known to survive being dehydrated for years. They can be found all over Earth and have even survived the vacuum of space.

Beresheet crashed into the moon’s surface during its attempt to land there earlier this year, dashing the hopes of hundreds of engineers who had worked on the project for years.

The Beresheet selfie during landing, April 11, 2019. (YouTube screenshot)

The spacecraft successfully initiated its landing sequence, but a few kilometers above the moon’s surface the main engine failed, so the craft could not properly brake in time to cushion its landing.

“For the first 24 hours we were just in shock,” Spivack told Wired. “We sort of expected that it would be successful. We knew there were risks but we didn’t think the risks were that significant.”

However, he said he believes the archive likely survived the crash either partially or fully intact and that the tardigrades could potentially be awakened from their dormant state.

The spacecraft was budgeted at $100 million (NIS 370 million), a fraction of the cost of vehicles launched to the moon by major powers US, Russia and China in the past. It was a joint venture between private companies SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, funded almost entirely by private donations from well-known Jewish philanthropists, including South African billionaire Morris Kahn, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Lynn Schusterman, and others.

In 2017, the science fiction television program “Star Trek: Discovery” featured a plot revolving around a giant tardigrade being used to navigate space. So far there is no word if future Israeli missions will be crewed by tardigrades.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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