Microbial Life on the Moon?

Article written: 5 Nov , 2008
Updated: 26 Apr , 2016
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One astrobiologist claims the deep, dark craters on the Moon might contain traces of early life from meteorites blasted off the Earth by asteroids billions of years ago. Joop Houtkooper, from the University of Giessen in Germany says studying these craters could reveal clues about the origin and evolution of life on Earth or even contain remnants of life from other planets in the Solar System, such as Mars. Houtkooper is also one of the few scientists who insist that the experiments done by the Viking Mars Landers in the 1970’s actually did reveal microbial life in the Martian soil, and earlier this year, Houtkooper predicted microbes could be detected by NASA’s Phoenix lander. So, could this new claim about microbes on the Moon be just the latest in a long series of contentious claims, or is Houtkooper onto something?

Houtkooper said the best place for finding evidence of life is on the moon is within the Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole. Houtkooper presented his ideas at the recent 2008 European Planetary Science Congress in Germany. However, this was before results were released from the Japanese Kaguya lunar orbiter, which peered into Shackleton Crater and found no appreciable evidence of water ice. So, while ice on the moon hasn’t been ruled out completely, right now, the evidence isn’t there.

But Houtkooper said the evidence could come in the form of organic molecules, fossil remains, dead organisms, or even organisms in a dormant state that could be revived, such as bacterial spores. He said it is even possible that microbes could have survived for a short while after impact. Although there is no atmosphere to support life today, a temporary, thin atmosphere could have formed shortly after an impact event, as water and gases from the space rock vaporized, Houtkooper claimed.

The permanently shaded craters would be at almost a constant deep freeze temperature of -248ºC, ideal for freezing water and gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide or methane, and preserving traces of life undisturbed by sunlight and solar winds.

Other astrobiologists say the theory is possible, but would be a long shot.

“The microbial system on Earth extends to a depth of several kilometers into the crust, and so rocks blasted off the Earth by asteroid impacts could well have contained microbes,” said astrobiologist Malcolm Walter from the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“I’d be very conservative about this idea,” said Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist at University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom. “If, say, a comet landed right in the middle of a crater, then it’s possible”.

While Houtkooper agreed the idea is controversial, he maintains that there’s a good chance that remains of life could be found – and the latest mission to the Moon could provide the proof. India’s Chandrayaan-1 space probe launched in October will be specifically looking for ice deposits at the lunar poles.

“The long-existing knowledge about the Moon’s rotation axis implies that there are places in eternal shadow at the Moon’s poles,” Houtkooper said. “That means exceptionally low temperatures at, and some depth below, the surface there.”

Source: Cosmos Magazine


15 Responses

  1. A reader says

    Diaspora Redux? Why not.

  2. Maxwell says

    Bacteria make good space travelers. That much has been proven.
    Natural processes being what they are, its entirely possible for a hardy strain to infect multiple planets in a solar system… or maybe even make the journey between stars?

    Its a wild theory to contemplate.

  3. Hunnter says

    I couldn’t really see this to be honest.
    Early life on Earth wasn’t as advanced (probably), so surviving in a place that has pretty much no air, and no sunlight is incredibly unlikely.

    There is more of a chance for life to be there from us landing stuff on it, but still unlikely due to extremophiles (sp?) not living on rockets, or even above the surface.

    It might contain dead and dormant life though.

    Could always take the easy root, build a big sphere, add some matter, water, lightning generator, and shake it all about.
    Could maybe even create some weirder lifeforms by adding certain elements that aren’t that frequent (such as lots of electrical activity, rather than the occasional lightning storm)
    Lets recreate Titan!

  4. AndJames says

    The statement in the article, “Houtkooper agreed the idea is controversial” says it all.

    Might be cynical, but it certainly got it the attention of the media and his 15-minutes of fame.

    Might have happened, but discovering this is goddamn near impossible.

  5. alandee says

    Even if it only inspires another trip to the moon with a rover it’s worth contemplating .. there’s not enough focus on possibility in the world of space exploration today, and too much focus on what we do and don’t think we know ..
    Space exploration needs to be based, in my opinion, on both sound knowledge ( titan has lightning and methane, Mars has ice on it etc ) coupled with a dream & naivety, to explore and push the boundaries without observing only what we expect to see. Look back to the heady space race days, the pioneering spirit of Everest, and the longevity of the mars rovers, mix it all up, and you have a bunch more people pressing governments to get interested !!

  6. FzFx says

    “The permanently shaded craters would be at almost a constant deep freeze temperature of 248ºC, ideal for freezing water and gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide or methane, and preserving traces of life undisturbed by sunlight and solar winds.”

    It may be -248ºC instead of 248ºC?

    Or I am wrong? 🙂

  7. Nancy Atkinson says

    FzFx-
    Yes, you are right. The minus sign didn’t make it along with the rest of the upload. Thanks for noting the mistake. Its been fixed.
    Nancy

  8. Judith Wilson says

    From Flab to Fab-also went from Black to White ? in two weeks? Wow! get ready for the rush of clients.

  9. Roger Levinson. says

    It is a complete waste of time looking for what does not exist. There is no other life in the universe, we are the only planet and we are alone, tough to accept but it will be found to be fact.

  10. Frank Glover says

    “It is a complete waste of time looking for what does not exist. There is no other life in the universe, we are the only planet and we are alone, tough to accept but it will be found to be fact.”

    Will you tell us what makes you so certain?

    And will you tell us how the rest of us will know this to be a fact unless we indeed *look?*

    The Universe has proven to be full of too many other suprises, to be so certain, so early in our knowledge of it.

    Now, I seriously doubt we’ll find anything biological in the Lunar polar regions either, but we’re going to go there anyway for *other* reasons. (no one originally went to Antarctica *just* because it might have pristine, easily identified metoerites originating from the asteroids, the Moon and even Mars, but it proved to be a cool incidental discovery) Nothing wil be lost by checking for that possibility possibility, too…

  11. Roger Levinson. says

    Because that is what we are here for, to populate the universe. It is almost a fact that there is no other intelligent life form, the proof being where are they? and why have we detected nothing. The second point that there is no other life forms out there is found in the fact that there must be worlds in habitable zones which developed well before our solar system. If life developed on these worlds then is it not logical to presume that after a few billions of years intelligent life forms would have evolved?. this has not happened see point one. Ergo, there is ot other life in the universe except what is on our planet. Our destiny is to populate the universe and it is about time that we got on with the job. Roger Levinson

  12. TD says

    That there are some spores on the moon is almost a no-brainer. Either by meteor impacts, or the more elegant electric uplift theory by Nobel winner Svante Arrhenius, the probability of at least some non-viable microbial spores is overwhelming. Also, by either theory, there is a very good reason to think that Mars has life, even today. That some overbroad negative conclusions from a few famous scientists decades ago could so badly slow the scientific study of life on Mars will be the lowest point for science since Galileo. And IF (and I said IF) there is some intentional efforts to keep life on Mars and spores-through-space theories ridiculed, then the evil being created far outweighs the benefits of protecting Earth from these related life forms. It’s time for a great leap forward…and there is no place for small minded ridicule any more.

  13. Frank Glover says

    “Because that is what we are here for, to populate the universe.”

    That’s not a fact, that’s a statement of philosophy.

    “It is almost a fact that there is no other intelligent life form,”

    ‘Intelligent’ life form. Okay, that’s a qualifier you didn’t use before.

    “…the proof being where are they? and why have we detected nothing.”

    We haven’t looked very long. We haven’t looked very far. With our current knowledge of physics and how civilizations develop (we have only ourselves as an example, and it’s never wise to extropolate very far, from just one data point), we assume radio frequency communications as the most likely medium. That may or may not be a correct assumption, but we can only go with what we know. And some have noted that RF communicatons may not carry as far as we might like before being lost in background noise. So, we may not have looked with all possible means. The absense of a sky that’s bright with intelligently generated RF does indeed tell us something, but not necessairily what you’re concluding.

    “The second point that there is no other life forms out there is found in the fact that there must be worlds in habitable zones which developed well before our solar system. If life developed on these worlds then is it not logical to presume that after a few billions of years intelligent life forms would have evolved?”

    Yes, that’s a quite reasonable possibility.

    “…this has not happened see point one. ”

    That’s possible too. It’s also possible that civilizations more advanced than ours may not manifest themselves in ways obvious to us. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Not being a civilization that advanced, we can’t look for what we don’t know. (A thousand years ago, it could have been assumed that the best form of communications between cities of the time is a fast runner or horse riding courier. Modulated radio waves? Fiber optics? Completely beyond their imagining.) As I said, there’s currently far too much room for suprise.

    “Ergo, there is ot other life in the universe”

    Wait, are we still talking intelligent life, or not? If we find so much as a microbe on Mars, that’s life. However, it’s entirely possible that ‘life’ is commmon, but intelligent life that’s also capable of the technology that leads to radiotelescopes and starships is rare.

    “…except what is on our planet. Our destiny is to populate the universe and it is about time that we got on with the job.”

    Again, that’s a statement of philosophy, even though one I can agree with. Human expansion into the universe is, in my opinion, a desirable end.

    But it’s far to early, and our knowledge is far too limited to assme that we’ll never run into anyone else. Come back with another few centuries worth of null observations and data, and you then *might* have a point.

  14. Huygens says

    “Our destiny is to populate the universe and it is about time that we got on with the job.”

    – Roger Levinson

    That is probably what most of the other aliens in our galaxy were thinking when they first set out to colonize the Universe.

    Then they met the neighbors.

  15. Roger Levinson. says

    Well at least I got the discussion going did I not?? Roger

Comments are closed.