We’re now polluting the moon with near indestructible little creatures

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An Israeli spacecraft called Beresheet almost made it to the moon in April. It took a selfie with the lunar surface in the background, but then lost contact with Earth and presumably crashed onto the lunar surface. Now it’s been revealed that the mission was carrying a cargo of dehydrated microscopic lifeforms known as tardigrades.

Beresheet was the first stage of a privately-funded initiative to transfer living DNA to the moon. The project is designed to act as Noah’s Ark Mark II, providing a repository from which plants and animals could be regenerated to repopulate the Earth should a catastrophe akin to a flood of biblical proportions overtake the planet.

Whether the project is far-sighted or foolish, what has roused interest is the fact that, as a result of the crash, the tardigrades may now be scattered across the lunar surface. They are hardy creatures and could probably survive on the moon for a long time. Is this a matter of concern? I believe so, but possibly not for the reasons you might think.

Tardigrades are odd little creatures. Measuring up to about half a millimeter long, they have four pairs of stubby legs and a front-end that even the fondest parent couldn’t describe as beautiful. Striking, or distinctive, are my adjectives of choice. Moon-faced would be appropriate, given the context of the story – with a rounded, sucker-like structure in the centre that can project outwards, revealing a set of dangerous-looking sharp teeth.

They’re often called “water bears” but the images of tardigrades that I have seen remind me of a slightly over-inflated blimp, one of those large balloons that float overhead at carnivals. The legs stick out at a slight angle, as if they are too swollen to stand upright. And that is probably the clue as to why it is extremely unlikely that the creatures will survive indefinitely on the moon.