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View Full Version : Did we contaminate the Moon with terrestrial bacteria?



Jigsaw
2002-May-07, 02:57 AM
On another message board, we were talking about possibly having to decontaminate any returning manned Mars expeditions, so as to avoid possibly spreading Mars bacteria to Earth, and in the course of the discussion somebody made this statement:

IIRC, we never found any Moon life. However, we did contaminate the Moon with Earth life. Some of our bacteria hitched a ride up there and survived.
And I was like, huh? I don't remember hearing that.

Peter B
2002-May-07, 06:23 AM
The Apollo 12 astronauts brought back parts of Surveyor 3 which were supposedly infected with some bactrium or virus. This could either have the result of contamination before Surveyor 3 was launched in 1966 or 1967 (whichever year it was), or contamination after Apollo 12 brought the parts back. If the former, we infected the Moon.

John Kierein
2002-May-07, 02:25 PM
I saw the Surveyor mirror in a clean room at the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York. Dudley was associated with SUNYA. It was being examined under an electron microscope for micrometeoroid impacts. This was in the early 70s. I never heard a thing from the scientists there about bacterial contamination, but the issue never came up. In those days, Dudley was the premiere place for studies of interplanetary dust and meteoroids, under the leadership of Curt Hemenway. They had 2 experiments on Skylab, one that exposed several surfaces to space that were returned to record impacts and another to measure the gegenschein and zodiacal light. The Dudley Observatory no longer exists in Albany, but is still an organization. It is a shame it is not the place it used to be. At one time it published the Astronomical Journal.
http://www.dudleyobservatory.org/
It says on their web site that they are looking for a new director. Maybe Phil could revive the place. They did some really good science there.

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: John Kierein on 2002-05-07 10:27 ]</font>

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: John Kierein on 2002-05-07 10:29 ]</font>

Bob
2002-May-07, 04:15 PM
http://www.lpi.usra.edu/expmoon/Apollo12/A12_Experiments_III.html

Here are the results of the biological inspection of Surveyor 3 hardware returned to Earth on Apollo 12.

John Kierein
2002-May-07, 05:07 PM
Here's more from NASA:
http://science.msfc.nasa.gov/newhome/headlines/ast01sep98%5F1.htm

The mirror I saw was used by the TV camera to scan around the landing site. It was part of the camera that was returned. I believe it was flat. They kept it under quite good cleanliness control at Dudley.

beskeptical
2002-May-07, 07:36 PM
Bacteria apparently survived a couple years orbit in space and were viable upon return. It was probably impossible not to have taken some to Mars and the Moon. Everything in contact with the planetary bodies would have had to have been sterilized after leaving Earth's atmosphere to prevent such contamination.

Before discovery of life on the edge of undersea thermal vents, scientists assumed life was limited to Earthlike conditions. While they made an effort to control for contaminants coming and going, it seemed half hearted.

I saw an interview with one of the returning lunar astronauts. He stated that their post landing quarantine was "a joke". When they were supposed to be in strict isolation, there were cracks in the building including an ant infestation through one of the cracks.

The chance any contaminants remain on the Moon or Mars, and, more importantly, whether they might find themselves in conditions that allow growth are probably very slim, (but not zero).

We should keep this problem in perspective. We are much more likely to encounter organisms here on Earth that will cause the next mega-pandemic. HIV is pandemic now and growing. The 1918 flu pandemic will inevitibly repeat itself, probably sooner than later. That killed 20 to 40 million people in about 4 months time. That is not time enough to develop and distribute a vaccine.

As far as contaminating Mars and other Planets, that is a risk I doubt will be adequately addressed until the first 'event'.
That seems to be the trend anyway.

Geologists and astronomers are working more closely together. We need biologists to join in more often. I think that is happening since the discovery of wierd organisms living on heat and toxic chemicals at volcanic vents in the ocean. I think that opened a few eyes to the potential for life outside of or planet. Before those discoveries, I'm sure a lot of astronomers were not considering bacteria in space to be likely.

Jigsaw
2002-May-08, 02:41 AM
Okay, but having terrestrial bacteria survive for two years in space on a piece of equipment isn't IMO quite the same thing as "contaminating the moon". For one thing, "contaminating the moon" I would interpret to mean the bacteria actually growing and multiplying on the moon's surface. So is there any evidence for that, like if they brought back some moon rocks subsequent to Apollo 12 and tested them for terrestrial bacteria? Has anybody ever looked?

Martian Jim
2002-May-08, 06:52 AM
if we put some water on the moon and some earth soil would life evolve if bacteria was their too?

beskeptical
2002-May-08, 06:54 PM
On 2002-05-07 22:41, Jigsaw wrote:
Okay, but having terrestrial bacteria survive for two years in space on a piece of equipment isn't IMO quite the same thing as "contaminating the moon". For one thing, "contaminating the moon" I would interpret to mean the bacteria actually growing and multiplying on the moon's surface. So is there any evidence for that, like if they brought back some moon rocks subsequent to Apollo 12 and tested them for terrestrial bacteria? Has anybody ever looked?





For that to have happened, the bacterial contaminants would had to have spread and multiplied. There is no question contaminated Moon rocks would have been noticed.

For bacteria to survive on equipment in space was a surprise to everyone. It was assumed cosmic radiation would have killed all. Apparently the little buggers were heartier than was thought.

For life to expand onto the Moon or Mars, at least the minimal growth requirements would have to be present. For evolution to occur, the bacteria have to replicate. Once they do that, DNA copy errors begin. When the error is detrimental that bacteria dies. When the error is beneficial, that guy goes on. As the errors accumulate, the bacteria evolve to fit the environment and life goes on from there.

Biologists have also discovered recently, massive amounts of bacterial growth deep in the Earth's crust. Since Moon rocks have hit the Earth, you have to assume Earth rocks might have hit the Moon in the past. Being in such close proximity to the Earth, if life were possible on the Moon, it might have already occurred. It probably hasn't, but do we really know that yet?

Mars, on the other hand, could very well have life, especially in the crustal rocks. We may very well have seeded it already. Or, it may have had its own life already, or both. The next few decades of space science should be incredibly fascinating.

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: beskeptical on 2002-05-08 14:55 ]</font>

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: beskeptical on 2002-05-08 14:57 ]</font>