Thousands of Tardigrades Are Stranded on the Moon After an Israeli Lunar Lander Crashed

Eraxion/iStock via Getty Images
Eraxion/iStock via Getty Images

Tardigrades, known to many as water bears or moss piglets, may be the cutest organisms you need a microscope to see. They're also remarkably tough: The miniscule creatures are capable of producing glass shields in their cells to protect themselves in extreme conditions, and they can survive almost anywhere, including space. Now, as BBC News reports, their resilience is being put to the test. Last April, an Israeli spacecraft crashed and dumped thousands of tardigrades on the Moon, and mission officials say their chance of survival is "extremely high."

The spacecraft that crash-landed on the moon last spring had been carrying a "backup of planet Earth." The mission was organized by the Arch Mission Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to amass libraries of human knowledge and history and store them in various spots around the solar system for safekeeping. This particular collection contained human DNA samples, a CD-ROM-like disc inscribed with 30 million pages of information, and dehydrated tardigrades.

The lunar library hitched a ride aboard Israel Aerospace Industries' Beresheet spacecraft in what was to be the first-ever private Moon landing. The endeavor failed at the last minute when the lander's main engine malfunctioned as it approached the Moon's surface, resulting in a collision. The Beresheet spacecraft may not have survived the journey, but according to Arch Mission Foundation CEO Nova Spivack, its thousands of tardigrades passengers likely did.

When tardigrades are dehydrated, they're virtually indestructible. In the face of danger, they enter this near-death state on their own and manage without food, water, or even air until conditions improve. They can live this way for decades without an issue, and when they're rehydrated, they instantly resume life as normal.

Spivack's prediction that the tardigrades are doing fine on the Moon is more than just a hunch: The creatures have been brought to space before and survived. This case, however, isn't a controlled experiment, and introducing a new species to the surface of the Moon could have unforeseen consequences. Humans have left objects on the Moon before—like golf balls, art, and even feces—but never such complex living organisms.

If the lunar library remained intact through the crash, it may be possible for future missions to retrieve it and conduct tests on the tardigrades once they are brought back to Earth. Until then, there's a strong likelihood that Earth is no longer the only celestial body in our solar system that's supporting life.

[h/t BBC News]

A Rare ‘Full Cold Moon Kiss’ Is Coming This Week—Here’s How to See It

jamesvancouver/iStock via Getty Images
jamesvancouver/iStock via Getty Images

Every year ends with a cold moon—the name given to a full moon that appears in December. The full cold moon that's lighting up skies in 2019 will come with a bonus spectacle for sky-gazers. As Forbes reports, a planetary "kiss" between Saturn and Venus will coincide with the last full moon of the year. Here's what you need to know about the astronomical events.

What is a Full Cold Moon Kiss?

The full moon of each month has a unique nickname associated with the time of year it occurs. A cold moon happens as temperatures drop and winter settles in, hence the name. December's full moon has also been called the long nights moon by some Native American tribes and the moon Before Yule in Europe, according to Travel and Leisure.

This year's moon will be visible the night of December 11 through the morning of December 12. On this same night, the planets Venus and Saturn will appear closer than usual in the night sky. The celestial bodies will be less than 2° apart and share a celestial longitude, a phenomena known as a conjunction or a planetary "kiss."

How to See the Full Cold Moon Kiss

During twilight on Tuesday, December 10, the bright planet Venus and the dimmer planet Saturn will arrive at their closest conjunction, 1.8° apart, above the southwestern horizon. The following evening, they'll be just .01° further away. Stick around the night of Wednesday, December 11 to catch the full cold moon, which reaches peak illumination at 9:12 p.m. on the West Coast and at 12 minutes after midnight on the East Coast.

Not planning on staying up late to see the moon reach its fullest state? Moonrise on December 11 will be just as spectacular. When the moon surfaces around sunset, it will appear larger and more reddish in color in the sky. Meanwhile, Venus's and Saturn's kiss will be visible 180º away.

[h/t Forbes]

First-Ever Map of Titan Reveals That Saturn’s Moon Is a Lot Like Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

If there's any life in this solar system outside Earth, we likely won't find it on Mars or even on another planet. Saturn's moon Titan is the place in our celestial neighborhood that's most similar to our own home, and it's where scientists think we have one of the best chances of discovering life. Now, as Nature reports, newly visualized data shows just how much Titan has in common with Earth.

Between 2004 and 2017, the NASA spacecraft Cassini performed more than 100 fly-bys of Saturn's moon. Titan is unique in that it's the only moon in the solar system with clouds and a dense, weather-forming atmosphere. This has made it hard to study from space, but by flying close to the surface, Cassini was able to capture the landscape in an unprecedented level of detail.

Map of Titan.
The first global geologic map of Titan.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA's new map of Titan, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, reveals a varied world of mountains, valleys, plains, and sandy dunes that starkly contrast with the desolate wastelands we've seen on neighboring planets. It's also home to seas and lakes, making it the only place in the solar system other than Earth with known bodies of liquid. But instead of water, the pools mottling the moon's surface consist of liquid methane.

Even with its Earth-like geology and atmosphere, chances of finding life on Titan are still slim: Temperatures on the surface average around -300°F. If life does exist there, it's likely limited to microbes in the moon's craters and icy volcanoes.

It will be a while before NASA is able to study Titan up close again: NASA's next drone mission to the body is set for 2034. Until then, scientists have plenty of data recorded by Cassini to teach them more about how the moon formed and continues to change.

[h/t Nature]

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