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A Lunar Refuge for Early Microbes

The Moon is, for obvious reasons, rarely considered an interesting venue for astrobiology. But I’ve been looking through Joop Houtkooper’s presentation at the European Planetary Science Congress, noting his contention that some lunar craters might hold samples of life from the early Earth, and perhaps even from Mars. If the name Houtkooper rings a bell, it may stem from the splash he made last year by suggesting that the Viking probes to Mars may have discovered Martian microbes consisting of fifty percent water and fifty percent hydrogen peroxide.

Although some extremophiles here on Earth put hydrogen peroxide to use, the theory is quite a long shot. But then, Houtkooper (University of Giessen, Germany) seems to thrive on remote possibilities. His lunar theory works like this: Certain craters on the Moon are effectively shielded from sunlight, at least deep within their recesses. Shackleton crater at the south pole is a case in point, a place that may contain sub-craters free of even reflected light from the crater edges. These ultra-cold places might preserve any life that found its way there.

Ancient meteorites would be the source of that life, debris blasted off a primordial Earth by various impacts. It is even conceivable, though at the outer edges of possibility, that we might find viable microbes that have survived the intervening eons in a dormant state. Let me quote from an abstract of Houtkooper’s talk that is available online:

Some of this biogenic material would have likely been preserved on the Moon, probably frozen into the regolith and later being covered by lunar dust. Some of its microbial load, dislodged with rocks from Earth, might have survived the transport to the Moon, and would have possibly remained in a viable state if buried quickly under the radiation ­reworked surface. Some of these organisms may have even landed in lunar locations, where liquid water was present for a temporary period. These pockets of water would have been small in extent, possibly microscopic, within an excavated impact crater. Perhaps, these impact zones would have provided suitable conditions to support a highly localized biosphere for a limited period of time. Given the dryness of the Moon, its lack of a substantial atmosphere and lack of dynamic activity, we consider it unlikely that any surviving microbes would still be active on the Moon, but it is not entirely impossible if liquid would be found beneath the lunar ice in some locations. More likely, however, is that these temporarily existing liquid water pools froze and may still hold viable microbial organisms, possible even organisms that extended their life time for a short while on the Moon.

Houtkooper is suggesting that a large enough impact could create a temporary and vanishingly thin lunar atmosphere that conceivably could call dormant life back into action. Life on the Moon. The odds seem astronomical, but the chance to study ancient microbes from our planet’s earliest history, and perhaps microbes from Mars as well, would make this an investigation worth pursuing if we were in the vicinity anyway. The search for lunar ice at the bottom of such craters could make this a possibility for future manned missions. See also this piece in Astrobiology Magazine on earlier work by John Armstrong, Ian Crawford and Emily Baldwin on the survival of biological markers from Earth on the Moon. 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Darnell Clayton November 5, 2008, 17:52

    Wouldn’t cosmic radiation from other stars, black holes, etc. pretty much kill off any dormant bacteria within a craters shadow? (especially since the Moon lacks a magnetic field as well as an atmosphere)

  • Bob Shaw November 6, 2008, 21:16

    The Moon is just one of several nearby dynamic traps for inner-planet ejecta and for particles slowed by a variety of solar dynamical processes. While there is at present no particular evidence for relict biological or pre-biological material in any of these sites, locations such as Lunar and Mercurian cold-traps (and areas where orbital mechanics may deposit material with slow collision speeds, such as certain retrograde moons of the outer planets, LaGrange points and so forth) are well worth investigation. Even without revisiting the whole range of panspermia theories, the prospects for the recovery of seriously interesting abiotic chemistry from these locales is very interesting – and there may indeed even be the remains of life itself.

    Bob Shaw

  • david lewis November 6, 2008, 22:29

    With life being found three miles below the earth’s surface is there any way we can say for sure microbes can’t live on the moon? Even if they were originally deposited on the surface they might have found ways to get miles below where they would be safe from cosmic rays. It might be a long shot, but it will be a while before we can say the moon is free of such life. I wonder, just how different are conditions three miles below the earth’s surface from conditions three miles below the moon’s surface – or mar’s surface for that matter.

  • Bob Shaw November 8, 2008, 20:26

    The problem with Lunar life is that the Moon’s internal heat engine shut down quite early, leaving a dessicated megabreccia near the surface, in the very region where life might have found a refuge. It has been estimated that most Earth life is underground, and Mars certainly hosts some rather similar subsurface environments (though not exactly the same, lacking as it does an active hydrological system or any very active tectonics). It is, however, slime at best, even though it may go all the way down…

    Bob Shaw

  • david lewis November 13, 2008, 10:45

    The problem with Lunar life is that the Moon’s internal heat engine shut down quite early

    Sadly true. On the bright side if there is no life there will be less resistance to developing it once we are able to. Though I am sure there will be some saying the moon should be left in its natural state.

  • ljk December 17, 2009, 1:27

    December 16, 2009

    Signs of Life Detected on the Moon?

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    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.

    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 but said, “It is an intriguing suggestion, and we are certainly very interested in learning more of their results.”

    Full article here: