Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Earth’s toughest creatures may be living on the moon



There might be life on the moon after all: thousands of virtually indestructible creatures that can withstand extreme radiation, sizzling heat, the coldest temperatures of the universe and decades without food.

These terrifying-sounding beings aren’t aliens, they are Earthlings known as tardigrades. They probably made it out alive after a crash-landing on the lunar surface by Israel’s Beresheet probe in April, the United States-based organisation responsible for their trip said on Tuesday.

Based on an analysis of the spacecraft’s trajectory and the composition of the device they were stored in, “we believe the chances of survival for the tardigrades … are extremely high”, said Nova Spivack, cofounder and chairman of the Arch Mission Foundation.

The nonprofit is dedicated to spreading backups of human knowledge and Earth’s biology throughout the solar system, a quest it likens to the creation of an “Encyclopaedia Galactica”, first evoked by sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov. “Tardigrades are ideal to include because they are microscopic, multicellular and one of the most durable forms of life on planet Earth,” said Spivack.

He said the tardigrades, which are under a millimetre in size, had been dehydrated to place them in suspended animation, then “encased in an epoxy of artificial amber, and should be revivable in the future”.

They were stored inside a “lunar library,” a nanotechnology device that resembles a DVD and contains a 30-million-page archive of human history viewable under microscopes, as well as human DNA.

The first genetic code to be deposited on the barren celestial body were the DNA and microbes in almost 100 bags of faeces and urine left behind by American astronauts during the Apollo lunar landings from 1969 to 1972.

Tardigrades, also known as water bears or moss piglets, can live in water or on land, and survive temperatures as high as 150°C and as low as -272°C, albeit only for a few minutes.

The grub-like, eight-legged creature can come back from being dried out to a lifeless husk, withstand near-zero pressure in outer space, and the crushing depths of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean.

William Miller, a tardigrade expert at Baker University, said: “But to become active, to grow, eat, and reproduce they would need water, air and food,” so it would not be possible for them to multiply and form a colony on the moon.

Nasa astrobiologist Cassie Conley said: “If they don’t get too hot, it’s possible they could survive for quite a long time” but she was more concerned that they would be affected by toxic chemicals from the epoxy they were stored in.

Even if the creatures lived on for several years, there is no crewed mission to the Moon planned until Nasa’s Artemis programme in 2024 at the south pole — far from Beresheet’s crash site on the Sea of Serenity, so they probably won’t make it home.

“It is unlikely that they will be rescued in time, so my guess is that, even if they survived, they are doomed,” said Rafael Alves Batista, a physicist at São Paulo University. — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Issam Ahmed
Issam Ahmed is Health, science and environment reporter for Agence France Presse

Related stories


Subscribers only

‘People feel they have a stake in SAA’ — Gidon...

Interest in the beleaguered national carrier, which has received billions of rands in public funding, means criticism is inevitable

Soweto teacher dismissed for the alleged repeated rape of a...

The learner was 13 when the alleged rapes started, and they continued for two years until she asked to be moved to another school

More top stories

Hospitals near capacity: What the new Covid-19 restrictions mean for...

After a dramatic surge in Covid-19 infections, President Ramaphosa has brought the country back to level three restrictions

Eskom to take over distribution, billing at troubled Free State...

The Maluti-a-Phofung local municipality owes the power utility more than R5-billion

ANC committed to paying staff salaries, but employees are not...

ANC staffers picketed outside Luthuli House on Tuesday after months of problems with salary payments

Kanalelo Boloetsi: Taking on Lesotho’s cellphone giants, and winning

A man who took on cellphone data regulators over out-of-bundle rates is featured in this edition of a series on human rights defenders in the SADC region

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…