Earth’s last residents: Scientists pinpoint creature set to survive until the death of the Sun

Scientists have determined that a species widely considered the most indestructible on the planet will be the last survivors on Earth, set to survive another 10 billion years until the Sun itself dies.

The species, a micro-animal with eight legs that reaches up to 1.5mm long, is known as the tardigrade – or water bear – and is the subject of research conducted by scientists from Oxford University and Harvard, published today in the journal Scientific Reports.

The scientists looked at phenomena likely to wipe out the majority of life on Earth, including major asteroid impacts, gamma ray bursts and supernovae, and found that the tardigrade would survive such cataclysmic events.  As a result, nothing would be sufficient to stop the tardigrade surviving until the death of the Sun, long after humans had vanished from Earth.

“Without our technology protecting us, humans are a very sensitive species. Subtle changes in our environment impact us dramatically,” said study co-author Dr Rafael Alves Batista, post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Physics at Oxford University. “There are many more resilient species’ on earth. Life on this planet can continue long after humans are gone.”

An adult tardigrade. Image courtesy of Bob Goldstein & Vicky Madden, UNC Chapel Hill

Importantly, this also raises hope for finding similar extraterrestrial life on seemingly inhospitable planets.

“Tardigrades are as close to indestructible as it gets on Earth, but it is possible that there are other resilient species examples elsewhere in the universe,” added Batista. “In this context there is a real case for looking for life on Mars and in other areas of the solar system in general.

“If tardigrades are earth’s most resilient species, who knows what else is out there.”

The tiny creatures are equipped with some significant survival traits that will allow them to survive in such adverse conditions. They can live for three decades with neither food nor water, and can survive in incredible extremes, at temperatures up to 150°C, in the depths of the sea and even in the freezing vacuum of space.

The research shows that while human life is sensitive to the calamities that could befall our planet, life as a wider concept endures.

A lot of previous work has focused on ‘doomsday’ scenarios on Earth – astrophysical events like supernovae that could wipe out the human race. Our study instead considered the hardiest species – the tardigrade,” said study co-author Dr David Sloan, a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Physics at Oxford University.

“To our surprise we found that although nearby supernovae or large asteroid impacts would be catastrophic for people, tardigrades could be unaffected.

“Therefore it seems that life, once it gets going, is hard to wipe out entirely. Huge numbers of species, or even entire genera may become extinct, but life as a whole will go on.”

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.