This handout picture released by Nature on September 20, 2016 shows a scanning electron microscope image of the hydrated tardigrade, Ramazzottius varieornatus. AFP PHOTO / NATURE / Tanaka S. / Sagara H. / Kunieda.”
When humans return to the moon after a 55-year absence, they could be welcomed by a hardy population of micro-organisms called water bears, which crash landed on the celestial satellite in April, says a University of Calgary engineering professor.Thousands of nearly indestructible tardigrades — plump, eight-legged creatures that are also known as water bears or moss piglets — were on board the Beresheet, the first private spacecraft to attempt a moon landing, when it crash landed in April after being launched by an Israeli organization.
University of Calgary professor Marjan Eggermont, who specializes in biomimicry at the Schulich School of Engineering, is an expert on tardigrades, more commonly known as water bears. Supplied photo/Postmedia Calgary
The Beresheet’s payload also included a digital library containing 30 million pages of information along with human DNA samples, though it’s the living passengers that seem to have captured the imagination of researchers some 363,000 kilometres away on Earth.Marjan Eggermont, who specializes in biomimicry at the Schulich School of Engineering, said given the legendary resiliency of tardigrades, which can be as large as one millimetre in length, it’s not science fiction that they could still be alive to greet NASA astronauts scheduled to return to the moon as part of the Artemis mission in 2024.Just add water.“These are microscopic organisms that have the ability to survive in extreme conditions,” Eggermont said.“They can go into a dormant state for up to 30 years. When they go dormant, their metabolism slows down to less than one per cent of their normal rate.“When water becomes available, they just get up and walk away.”Eggermont knows a thing or two about the roly-poly micro-animals, teaching her students about them for the past 15 years as well as featuring the creature as part of a project on potential applications of biomimicry (engineering man-made structures based on biological processes) for space travel at NASA’s Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland in 2016.She’s also the proud owner of no fewer than three water bear necklaces and a cute and cuddly moss piglet stuffy.But Eggermont’s fascination goes well beyond the otherworldly appearance of the ironclad critters, given their ability to survive in the most unforgiving of climates and conditions, including the vacuum of space.Water bears, she said, are among a select group of extremophiles, able to exist in harsh temperatures as low as -270 C, well below the moon’s low end of -173 C. They can exist without oxygen, in high-pressure environments six times greater than the ocean depths and even endure doses of radiation 1,000 times greater than what humans can endure.“I’m assuming when they crash landed they were already in a dehydrated state but they might be able to survive for an extended period, depending on their species, could even welcome humans if they do land on the moon in 2024,” Eggermont said.“They can be found all over the world, from rain forests to Antarctica to the sides of volcanoes and under the sea.”Eggermont noted tardigrades are no strangers to space exploration, with thousands attached to a satellite blasted into space in 2007 only to be revived, and in some cases thrive, when they returned to Earth.
People watch a screen showing explanations of the landing of Israeli spacecraft, Beresheet’s, at the Planetaya Planetarium in the Israeli city of Netanya, on April 11, 2019 before it crashed during the landing. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Brine shrimp, she added, sold to many a gullible reader of comic books as Sea Monkeys, share similar traits to water bears and had been part of similar space-based experiments, joining NASA astronauts on the 1972 Apollo 16 moon mission.“There have been some experiments done with tardigrades in space where they are dormant and are reanimated and even reproduce,” she said, noting not all are able to survive the rigours of space.“They are fascinating creatures.”firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @ShawnLogan403