Tardigrade Spill on the Moon Proves We Need Rules for Spreading Life Beyond Earth

Tardigrade mishap on the Moon sparks questions on if we should restrict unusual spacecraft payloads.

by Mika McKinnon
21 August 2019, 10:56am

Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a water bear, or tardigrade (phylum Tardigrada). Image: Getty Images

On April 11, a private spacecraft crashed into the moon. But it wasn’t just bent metal and twisted bolts scattered across the lunar landscape—the wreckage included thousands of tardigrades, incredibly resilient micro-animals. The famously-hardy tardigrades might have survived the crash landing and are a perfect reminder that it's time to start talking about what rules we want to shape our space environment.

“We have to be careful of exploring at any cost,” aerospace engineer Natalie Panek told Motherboard in a Twitter direct message. She argued that the same concepts of wilderness conservation apply to space exploration. “We need to show respect for the places we explore and the places we are trying to learn from. This means leaving as little impact as possible.”

Tardigrades, nicknamed water bears or moss piglets, are adorable micro-animals with eight claw-tipped legs on plump bodies. Along with their charm, tardigrades are also incredibly resilient—they dehydrate into a ball of bioglass, can be been revived after decades in hibernation, withstand enormous pressures, and even tolerate exposure to space.

“The tardigrade crash-landing is an important cross-road,” Panek said, warning that our track record of diving ahead without care for consequences resulted in abandoned bags of poop everywhere from Everest to the Moon. “We have an opportunity now to establish a framework, to listen to multiple perspectives, and think through the impacts of our exploration.”

SpaceIL, an Israeli space company, was attempting to make the first commercial landing on the moon with their Beresheet spacecraft. Earlier this month, Wired reported that on board was the Arch Mission Foundation’s digital library—25 layers of nickel etched to hold data, resin encasing human DNA, and tape containing thousands of dehydrated tardigrades—all wrapped in insulation and attached to the lander. The package was intended as part of an archive of life on Earth that the Foundation is distributing across the solar system, but due to its unusual construction, may be the only part of the spacecraft and its payload that is still intact. The tardigrades would still be dormant, but it’s plausible—even likely—that a few drops of water within a slightly-more-hospital environment could revive them within hours.

"We have to make sure the person essentially with the most money can't just do whatever they want.”

While not illegal, the idea that a private company could accidentally scatter living creatures on the Moon without any oversight or even disclosure is unnerving. Governments adhere to planetary protection protocols to limit biologically contaminating other worlds, but we don’t have laws or even cultural practices that place similar limits on private entities. We could change that.

“We have an opportunity to be proactive, instead of reactionary,” Panek said.

Astrobiologist and space policy consultant Monica Vidaurri agreed. “This should be a warning sign that this is going to keep happening,” she said. “We have to make sure that we're holding each other accountable and that we're eliminating risk that could be avoided. We have to make sure the person essentially with the most money can't just do whatever they want.”

This isn’t to say we should stop exploring, or even that we should create stringent laws that will be difficult to enforce given tricky nature of international law. Instead, both see the value in taking the spirit of cooperation that already permeates spaceflight and using this mishap as a way to start conversations about the future we want to build.

“Space travel is really the last true peaceful media for international relations that we have,” Vidaurri said, expressing her hope that we don’t allow harmful rhetoric to impede the unifying power of space. “It takes all kinds of disciplines and all kinds of nations,” she argues. “To see that go to waste for selfish reasons is the most one of the most worrisome things that gets to me.”

Panek extended that same idea into the value and risk of public-private partnerships and the growing role of commercial spaceflight in exploration. “With the growth of private space companies wanting to leave a mark (or be the first), the need for a framework and conversations around ethics is even more important, and should be top of mind,” she said.

Getting from this current era where anyone with enough money can purchase a ride for their payload—be it orbital art installations or undeclared tardigrades—to one where we collectively agree on what types of objects or lifeforms can go where won’t be easy, but it’s not unprecedented. Near-Earth orbit is crowded with everything from military hardware to communications satellites from countries and companies around the world coordinating in a complex dance of orbits, collision avoidance, and removing dying spacecraft so they don’t pose a threat to others.

“I hope we keep pushing what is possible, but while doing so, take the time to ask the hard questions,” Panek said. “Take the time to think about the consequences of our actions and learn to balance what we gain from the exploration of space with what we are willing to sacrifice in the process.”

That sounds overwhelming, but it can start small. Vidaurri is optimistic that this mishap could be the perfect motivation to make that happen. “The biggest catalyst into setting laws and setting norms is to have people talking about it,” she said. Because customs and cultural practices come from what we each do, she explains, anyone who uses this tardigrade spill to think about the potential impact of their own work has the ability to move these conversations forward.

“You can do it in an instant,” she said. “Even something as simple as writing an ethics statement sets the tone for a new age of ethics and safety, and a new age of making sure we don't make stupid mistakes in space exploration.”

These conversations on pushing forward culture can happen overnight, but setting out formal law is a more complicated and tedious process. The Outer Space Treaty was adopted in 1967 with no major revisions over intervening years even as spaceflight has exploded with more countries and companies getting into orbit. Even more frustratingly, the treaty has no way to oblige space-faring nations to join, and like all international law, no method of enforcing it beyond political pressure. It’s unclear how—or even if—similar rules could even be universally applied to independent private companies beyond requesting voluntary cooperation.

It’s too late to do anything about the lunar tardigrades except collect them and a few of the abandoned Apollo poop bags to see what extremophiles survive long-duration exposure to raw vacuum and harsh radiation. But it’s not too late to think about the future, and if our moon deserves at least the same care we’re starting to give our wilderness here on Earth.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.