Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander imagery taken before crash landing on April 11.
Credit: SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)

Last April, the Lunar Library, produced by the nonprofit charity, the Arch Mission Foundation, crash-landed on the Moon within the Israeli Beresheet Moon lander.

Beresheet impact site.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Even though the attempted spacecraft landing failed, some 60,000 images and pages etched into nickel films surely survived intact and are now on the surface of the Moon – much to the exasperation of planetary protection experts.

Lunar Library
Credit: Arch Mission Foundation

Library of life

The Arch Disc was 120 millimeters in diameter, consisting of 25 layers of Nanofiche. It weighed just 100 grams and was one millimeter in thickness once assembled – about the size and weight and thickness of a DVD. Although quite small, this artifact contained approximately 30 million pages of knowledge, making it one of the most information-dense objects humanity has ever made.

The Lunar Library contained a 30-million page backup of planet Earth, including the Wikipedia, and many other data sets, reports the Arch Mission Foundation.

Packing and stacking of Lunar Library.
Credit: Arch Mission Foundation

Later it was revealed that a set of secret “vaults” in the Lunar Library are said to have included the first library of life and DNA beyond Earth, including tardigrades, DNA of 25 humans, relics from sacred sites around the world, as well as David Copperfield’s magic secrets.

The Lunar Library’s tardigrades (thousands of dehydrated tardigrades in the “tun” state), were encapsulated in epoxy resin inside the inner seams of the 25 layers of the Lunar Library, and on the sticky side of a small piece of Kapton tape.

Tardigrades, also known as the water bear, are microscopic and are tough as nails – able to survive in ultra-extreme conditions, including space.

Bioload

More recently, as one of the general/overarching findings and recommendations of the NASA Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB), the SpaceIL Beresheet lunar lander that carried tardigrades and other biological samples came under scrutiny.

“It is impractical for launch providers or satellite hosts to definitively determine the biological content of every payload. Biological materials intentionally added by a bad actor are especially challenging for launch providers to monitor or report, as they can be further obscured by falsified verification or inaccurate documentation,” the report explains.

A scanning electron micrograph of an adult tardigrade (Hypsibius dujardini). Credit: Willow Gabriel, Goldstein lab, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“The recent experience in which a launch customer placed tardigrades and other biological samples on the SpaceIL Beresheet lunar lander is illustrative. By the Moon’s Category II PP designation, it is likely that a payload license would have been readily granted had the bioload been self-reported; however, the lack of such reporting created new issues relating to launch licensing,” the report to NASA adds.

As a supporting recommendation, the report notes that breaches of planetary protection reporting or other requirements should be handled via sanctions that hold the root perpetrator accountable, rather than increasing the verification and regulatory burden on all actors.

Wanted: more accountability

It’s my understanding that that payload of tardigrades was not disclosed to the launch provider and was not a part of the disclosure to receive a launch permit from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration],” explained Alan Stern, a space scientist and chair of the study. “So we would like to see more accountability going forward for just that kind of reason,” he said.

“This is a case where the payload provider — and I don’t know, so I’m uncertain whether that was a late add after the documentation, or if it didn’t get into documentation for other reasons — but we would like to see accountability…not at the feet of the launch provider, but at the payload providers who are ultimately putting things onboard to go to these different destinations,” Stern explained in a NASA telecon about the report.

Pre-launch image of the Beresheet lunar lander, developed by the nonprofit SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)
Credit: SpaceIL

Openness and transparency

Adding in her view during the telecon, Lisa Pratt, NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer, said:

“When there is a launch from U.S. soil, regardless of who is putting the payload onboard, NASA is consulted by FAA about whether or not there are problems with what’s known about payload,” Pratt said.

In the case of the Israeli spacecraft that carried the tardigrades, “we were not aware that there were biologicals,” Pratt said. There is no prohibition on putting biologicals on the Moon, she added, “and many people are well aware that there was a recent Chinese mission that had a number of seeds and even a potato plant that was sprouted on the Moon.”

Pratt said that “it’s about openness and transparency so that one group doesn’t inadvertently change what other groups can find or discover later. So the problem here is that nobody knew. And the individual who did this was proud of the fact and had a great deal of social media information…about not only were there tardigrades, but there were blood samples and suggested that there might be other things in addition,” Pratt said.

“So again, it’s really about the science and the way internationally we cooperate with one another so that one of us does not inadvertently do something that damages the ability of another nation to make a discovery and that’s a sounding principle in the Outer Space Treaty,” Pratt concluded.

Nova Spivack, founder of the Arch Mission Foundation.
Credit: Nova Spivack

No laws broken

Nova Spivack is founder of the Arch Mission Foundation and CEO of Magical, a science & technology venture studio in Los Angeles.

“The NASA report briefly mentions the risk of truly bad actors in space. Although no laws were broken in this case, nor was there any harm, we agree that the risk of future bad actors deliberately harming a protected location should be prevented,” Spivack told Inside Outer Space.

“The solution is a single planetary protection payload handoff form that should be filed with NASA, upon payload handoff, by any party sending anything to a protected location (which the Moon is not). The challenge is to get that legislated, and to make it internationally binding,” Spivack said.

To read the full final report — NASA Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB), Report to NASA/SMD – go to:

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/planetary_protection_board_report_20191018.pdf

For more information on the Arch Mission Foundation, go to:

https://www.archmission.org

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