Signs of Life Detected on the Moon?

by Nancy Atkinson on December 16, 2009

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Image from the Moon Impact Probe of the lunar surface. Credit:  ISRO

Image from the Moon Impact Probe of the lunar surface. Credit: ISRO

A website based in India has reported researchers with the Chandrayaan-1 mission may have found “signs of life in some form or the other on the Moon.” DNAIndia.com quoted Surendra Pal, associate director of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Satellite Centre as saying that Chandrayaan-1 picked up signatures of organic matter on parts of the Moon’s surface. “The findings are being analyzed and scrutinized for validation by ISRO scientists and peer reviewers,” Pal said.

Sources in India say Chandrayaan project director M. Annadurai later commented that the story was broken very prematurely. However, he did not dismiss the idea.

At a press conference Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union fall conference, scientists from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter also hinted at possible organics locked away in the lunar regolith. When asked directly about the Chandrayaan-1 claim of finding life on the Moon, NASA’s chief lunar scientist, Mike Wargo, certainly did not dismiss the idea either but said, “It is an intriguing suggestion, and we are certainly very interested in learning more of their results.”

Chandrayaan-1′s Moon Impact Probe, or MIP impacted the within the Shackleton Crater on the Moon’s south pole on Nov. 14, 2008. An anonymous Chandrayaan-1 scientist said MIP’s mass spectrometer detected chemical signatures of organic matter in the soil kicked up by the impact.

“Certain atomic numbers were observed that indicated the presence of carbon components. This indicates the possibility of the presence of organic matter (on the Moon),” a senior scientist told DNAIndia.

The scientist added the source of the organics could be comets or meteorites which have deposited the matter on the Moon’s surface but the recent discovery by another impact probe — the LCROSS mission — of ice in the polar regions of the Moon also “lend credence to the possibility of organic matter there.”

Undoubtedly, getting from carbon compounds directly to organics is a bit of a stretch, but amino acids have been detected in comets and were also found in pieces of the asteroid 2008 TC3 that landed in Africa over a year ago. Over the millennia, the Moon has been bombarded by comet and asteroid hits.

We’ll keep you posted on any official announcements by ISRO.

Sources: BAUT Forum, DNA India, AGU press conference

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

zhaphod December 16, 2009 at 11:03 AM

Can we discount the possibility that these organic molecules could have had terrestrial origin? I can think of a comet or asteroid impacting Earth with enough speed to eject some material into space which could have eventually found itself on the Moon.

Manu December 16, 2009 at 11:14 AM

Please change the title of this paper.

What is the relevant information here?

Is it that organics have potentially (even probably) been discovered on the Moon? Or is it that some journalist who vaguely remembers one or two chemistry lessons believes this allows them to write:
“Organic matter consists of organic compounds, which consists of carbon — the building block of life.
It indicates the formation of life or decay of a once-living matter.” ?

The first one is important, the second is not. The title is irrelevant to both.

The discovery of organics on the Moon is a fascinating enough story all by itself; speculation as of their origin is perfectly legitimate too as long as a little common sense is retained. Let’s stick to the science.

BeckyWS December 16, 2009 at 11:54 AM

I agree with Manu. Universe Today is usually better than this, and I really hope it’s not the cause of stupid tabloid headlines tomorrow.

Torbjorn Larsson OM December 16, 2009 at 1:17 PM

Two independent findings of organics is great. I’ll hope zaphod is correct in the process of material with organics kicked upstairs from time to time, and making a more or less frozen record of past Earth history.

If Theia once managed to kick up the Moon material, why not?

TD December 16, 2009 at 1:21 PM

Hey, why be so hard on Ms. Atkinson? If she wanted to create controversial headlines she’d review my book. As it stands, the article merely supports the possible identification of organics on the moon – something that the LCROSS team already hinted at in the press conference a while back.

Honestly, this isn’t the world of 50 years ago. Nobody cares much when water or organics – or even life for the matter, are discovered. The job of science should be to deliver the best opinion considering all the data, not the garbage like “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – it just gets mis-used too much.

Hans-Peter Dollhopf December 17, 2009 at 9:20 AM

Manu writes: “Please change the title of this paper.”

But why? The title of this paper is finalized by a question mark and not by an exclamation mark.

It is clear enough that Atkinson is not sympathetic to speculations but rather supporting us with some info on “a fascinating enough story all by itself”. Isn’t it?

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