Tempest in a Tardigrade cup: Cute little 'water bears on the moon' don't contaminate space

Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Water Bears On The Moon! It sounds like a 1950s B-Movie, but it’s a real story that’s generating a lot of interest in some quarters. But it’s more significant for what it reveals about people on Earth than for anything involving the moon.

Earlier this year, the Israeli Beresheet space probe, designed to preserve the history of our civilization and provide enough information to regenerate the human race, crashed on the moon. It’s since been reported that the spacecraft, which carried a DVD-like archive of 30 million pages and human DNA samples, also included several thousand microscopic tardigrades (micro-animals that resemble eight-legged pandas, thus the nickname "water bears") that hadn’t been listed on the launch license application

This has some people worried about harmful contamination of the moon, and others complaining about space activity that has no “scientific purpose.” But these objections seem much less significant once you start thinking about them. So let’s think.

What about beneficial contamination? 

The Outer Space Treaty, in Article IX, directs countries exploring space to avoid the "harmful contamination" of the moon and other celestial bodies. This raises two questions: What is "harmful," and what is "contamination?"

Tardigrades are tough, and can survive — but apparently not reproduce — in the harsh conditions of space. If there were a risk that they would reproduce like rabbits in Australia and cover the moon with a blanket of tardigrades and tardigrade waste, then you could make a pretty good argument that splashing some on the surface of the moon would be harmful. That, however, is not the case. “At best, the tardigrades will survive in a dormant state for some period of time depending on their level of exposure to vacuum, temperature cycling, and radiation,” according to Lisa Pratt, NASA’s Planetary Protection officer.  

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In fact, there’s nothing we know of that can survive and reproduce under lunar conditions. Nor is this the first contamination of the moon, given that Apollo astronauts left bags of human feces behind. It’s just not harmful. And given that in both cases the “contaminants” are within containers, it’s not clearly even “contamination.” (And as planetary scientist Phil Metzger points out, it’s quite possible that tardigrades were already on the moon, blown there by meteorite impacts millions of years ago.)

Elon Musk has jokingly suggested that we nuke the polar ice on Mars, causing it to evaporate and give Mars an atmosphere that moves it toward human habitability. This probably wouldn’t work. However, if it or something like it did give Mars a habitable surface, then it might count as contamination, but it certainly wouldn’t be harmful contamination. There’s nothing in the Outer Space Treaty that forbids “beneficial contamination,” and at least arguably that’s what this would be.

Space doesn't belong only to scientists 

More troubling than the dehydrated lunar water bears, though, is the response of some members of the scientific community. As space expert and blogger Rand Simberg notes, some of them seem to be trying to claim space as their own exclusive territory, arguing for limits on space activity that lacks a “scientific purpose.”

There are two problems with this. One is that “scientific purpose” is a pretty broad term — the Apollo flights involved science, but were primarily a bit of Cold War image-building, backed up by the desire to ensure that the Soviet Union didn’t get to the moon first and build military bases there. Likewise, I’m a good enough lawyer to demonstrate a “scientific purpose” for an asteroid-mining enterprise, a communications satellite swarm or even a batch of tardigrades landed on the moon, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. (In fact, a literal reading of Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty applies the no-harmful-contamination rule only to scientific exploration.)

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More significantly, there’s no legal basis for claiming that the only legitimate space activity is space activity that has a scientific purpose. Article I of the treaty declares space activity to be the “province of all mankind,” and there’s nothing anywhere in the treaty, or any other agreement, suggesting that the only legitimate space activity is scientific in nature. In fact, the treaty repeatedly refers to the “exploration and use” of outer space, suggesting that commercial exploitation is just as legitimate as scientific exploration.

There may be no grass on the moon, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t turf for people to fight over. Scientists may wish to claim space as their own exclusive playground, but there’s no particular reason for the rest of us to listen.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of "The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself," is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Scientists should chill out, water bears aren't contaminating the moon