It is official - there is life on the moon!

Admittedly, we were the ones who put it there so maybe it isn't such a good thing after all.

Last April a team from Israel sent an unmanned spacecraft known as Beresheet to the Moon. They were able to take some photographs as the probe approached the lunar surface, but then lost contact with it shortly afterwards. With no means of controlling the spacecraft it would have crashed violently into the lunar surface and broken apart.

This is not exactly a new experience. In the past many of our spacecraft and probes have been lost to various errors and glitches, and the majority of them have ended their missions by colliding with various bodies in the Solar System. The reason that this particular crash became newsworthy now is the cargo that Beresheet was carrying.

This crash has left a region of the lunar surface covered in small, living creatures known as tardigrades.

The Beresheet mission had been privately funded with the goal of distributing microscopic lifeforms onto the Moon. Their aim was to start new colonies of life in what they were calling Noah's Ark Mark II, so that a catastrophic event on the Earth would not end all life. 

If it had been any other lifeform, this would not be newsworthy. The lunar surface has no air, no food, and little if any water. Nothing should be able to survive there for very long. Except tardigrades are strange little creatures who were specifically chosen for this mission because they can survive anywhere.

Scientists on Earth have been experimenting with tardigrades for decades. Tardigrades are tiny, measuring only half a millimeter long, and have an appearance that has been compared to an eight legged rodent with no eyes. 

In the past these creatures have proven that they can survive both extreme heat and extreme cold, including the temperatures they would be exposed to in space. They can survive high pressure environments and vacuum. They can be frozen. They can be dehydrated. They can be exposed to lethal doses of radiation. And yet they always manage to survive. They are quite possibly the most indestructible creatures on Earth.

And now they are on the Moon. 

So is this really a major problem? Probably not. The Moon is very unlikely to have any existing life on it, so we are not damaging or destroying a sensitive ecosystem here. There is virtually no risk that this accident will cause another lunar life form to become extinct. And since the tardigrades cannot re-animate or breed without liquid water, which is probably non-existent where they are, it isn't very likely that the colony will be established or survive. Tardigrades are extremely resilient, but without liquid water they will die after about a century or two. And so this crash probably won't have any negative long term effects.

The bigger concern here is for the future. A private company was able to pollute another world with possibly hazardous biological materials in the form of an indestructible life form. And while the Moon is already pretty sterile, other worlds are far more sensitive. If Beresheet had crashed on Mars for example, the existence of ice and perhaps subsurface liquid water could reanimate the tardigrades and allow them to form a viable colony. We do not know if there is any microbial life on Mars, but if there is then these invaders could destroy it and cost us the chance to study life on other worlds, as well as the moral issues of causing life on another world to go extinct. Is that a risk that we as humans are willing to take?

Perhaps it is time for the governments and scientific agencies of the world to come together and create a set of laws governing travel to other worlds, before we forever lose the chance to study extraterrestrial life in our own astronomical backyard. 

Perhaps we don't want to see life on other worlds after all...