How a tiny bit of Indian soil might have found its way to the Moon

The only likely surviving payload onboard the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet called the Lunar Library, contained a leaf and some soil from the Bodhi tree in Bihar. Even before India’s much-touted lunar missing, Chandrayaan-2, lands on the moon, a very small biological sample from the country may already be there. According to The Hindu, this is because the only likely surviving payload onboard the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet, called the Lunar Library, contained a leaf and some soil from the Bodhi tree in Bihar.

Beresheet, whose name is Hebrew for the biblical phrase, In the beginning, was launched on February 21 onboard a SpaceX rocket. On April 11, it crash-landed on the moon after a series of technical failures during its final descent. It was reported then that the Lunar Library, created by the Arch Mission Foundation (AMF), was likely the only payload that wasn’t destroyed in the crash.

But what is this Lunar Library, and why was it carrying Indian soil?

The Library, according to the AMF, contains a 30 million page archive of human history and civilization, covering all subjects, cultures, nations, languages, genres, and time periods”. It’s meant to be a “backup” of life on Earth, in case of human extinction.

It “is housed within a 100-gram nanotechnology device that resembles a 120mm DVD. However it is actually composed of 25 nickel discs, each only 40 microns thick, 

Nova Spivack, the co-founder of the AMF said in an email that a small sample from the Bodhi tree, along with material on learning Hindi, Urdu, and information on music, was a part of the Lunar Library. The management of Mahabodhi stupa (Bihar) privately gave me a leaf from the Bodhi tree and some soil from under the Bodhi seat. These were included. We mixed these with relics from saints and yogis, as well as earth from sacred caves and tiny bits of relics from India, China, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, and Tibet.

This isn’t the startling revelation Spivack has made about what the Lunar Library contains. Last week, he revealed that thousands of tardigrades microscopic creatures are commonly known as “water bears” – are also a part of this backup. Tardigrades are known to be some of the most resilient creatures on Earth. As The Wire has reported before, they have been known to come back to life even after being exposed to radiation in space and being frozen for several years.

On the AMF website, the organization had earlier revealed some of the contents of four analog layers and 21 layers of 40-micron thick nickel foils, each containing a DVD master. This included private archives on culture and music, thousands of PDFs of books, linguistic datasets, and more.

Even then, though, the foundation had made it clear that there was more than it was saying. But this is only the beginning of the story there is in fact much more in the Lunar Library. This will be revealed in the coming months and years.

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 center 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.

Tardigrades can survive extremes of temperature and pressure, including the frigid vacuum of space. They don't seem to mind being exposed to radiation and are all-around tough little creatures. When dehydrated, they roll up into a spore-like state that slows down their metabolic rate by about a hundred-fold, enabling them to survive for potentially over 100 years.

But to live their life to the fullest requires water. It's where they get their oxygen and food, typically colonizing clumps of algae or burrowing into the sediment to ingest nutrients from the fluid of other living creatures, even other tardigrades. So while the tardigrades will technically stay alive on the moon for some length of time in their rolled-up state, unless they are rescued, rehydrated, and refueled, they will eventually perish.

Interplanetary pollution

I'm not concerned about polluting the moon with organisms that might reanimate. My concern is about polluting the moon, full stop. There is already a fairly sizeable amount of debris from redundant spacecraft and litter left behind by astronauts. As more missions are planned to the moon, eventually with human passengers and perhaps even settlements, we must learn to clean up as we go along. Otherwise, we are going to have the sort of crisis that we are seeing on Earth with the outcry about environmental damage from plastics.

There is, though, another question to consider. What if the spacecraft had crashed as it approached Mars rather than the moon? The planet has had a poor record for successful landings, although it is much improved in the past decade. Would the tardigrades have survived atmospheric entry? Even though the atmosphere of Mars is thin, it still provides sufficient resistance to cause serious damage to the outer shell of an entry vehicle.

If they had survived, would they ultimately be any more successfully on Mars than on the moon? We know there is plenty of ice below the immediate surface across much of the planet. Would an impacting spacecraft transfer sufficient energy to melt a local region of ice? Could that meltwater survive without sublimating away or refreezing for long enough that the tardigrades rehydrate and wake up?

I have no idea, but let's speculate that the answer to the two questions is "yes", and that following a crash, a flock (herd? shoal? pack?) of tardigrades reactivates. What happens next? As detailed above, tardigrades need water to survive, not just to rehydrate them. They live on fluids derived from other living beings. And, as far as we know, there are no living beings on Mars.

But we still keep sending spacecraft to look for life. Sending a cargo of tardigrades to Mars would be irresponsible, even if we don't believe they would survive. Irresponsible because Mars has the potential for life. Restricted life, for sure, but we have no right to endanger that life. And we have a responsibility to maintain Mars as close to pristine as possible, exploring it with care.

That is why space agencies take such stringent precautions about spacecraft construction. The rooms in which the craft is built are cleaner and more sterile than an operating theatre. They take every precaution to ensure that no terrestrial life is transferred to Mars.

NASA and ESA are currently planning a mission to return samples from Mars to Earth. And precautions about the possibility of returning Martian life to Earth with the rocks are central to the design and build of the spacecraft.

Last week, we had an asteroid passing close to the Earth. Next week, maybe it will be killer bees. Or a plague of thieving magpies. But for now, it is water bears on the moon. We should let them shrivel slowly into oblivion.

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