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Have We Contaminated the Moon?

March 12, 2018


You are full of microbes right now. Seriously, they're everywhere. Luckily, they're mostly harmless, but the fact that they're here on Earth means that when we go to other places - for example, the Moon - we bring them with us. So, are there colonies of bacteria on the Moon as far as we know?


Nothing can survive the cold near vacuum of space for very long, although we know of one case where it appeared possible.


On November 19th, 1969. Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean landed on the Moon. They touched down just over a hundred meters from Surveyor 3, an unmanned lander that was sitting on the lunar surface for two and a half years. 


So, the guys strolled over, grabbed Surveyor 3’s camera, and brought it home in a sterile container.


But back on Earth when scientists analyzed the camera in a sterile room, they found about a hundred specimens of streptococcus mitis living inside. If you’ve ever had strep throat, you’d know it’s a bacterium often found in the human mouth.


At first, it seemed like a small colony had somehow survived two-and-a-half years on the Moon. But then there were rumors regarding all sorts of problems with the analysis. Maybe the camera was brought back in a breathable nylon bag? Or maybe the sterile examination tools they use had been left on unsterile surfaces? Perhaps the researchers weren't wearing the proper clothing?


So did we give the Moon cooties, or just the camera once it was back on Earth? Probably just the camera.


In 2011, NASA researchers dug up old footage of the test, which showed a bunch of contamination issues that would never fly in a lab today. The scientists, for instance we're wearing regular scrub style shirts that would have let bacteria travel from inside their clothes to the camera, as opposed to these days when people doing that kind of research usually look more like Bubble Boy.


Which, in a way, is good news, because it means that our current understanding of how and where things can survive is still pretty accurate. 


Microbes here on Earth can survive some pretty amazing stuff. There are bacteria that can thrive under the extreme pressures in deep-sea, the extreme cold permafrost, and even in space - but only for a little while.


In 2011, Argentinian astrobiologists found that two of the world's heartiest bacteria could survive for three hours in a vacuum, while being blasted with the kind of UV radiation you'd get on Jupiter's moon Europa.



But that's only three hours. The world's toughest bacteria, some tiny adorable animals called tardigrades (as pictured above), can do a little better and last for at least ten days in space! Yes, eventually they shrivel up and die, and have to be revived once conditions are a little more friendly, but that's still pretty amazing.


Any germs on the Moon would have to survive the 200 degree days and the negative 200 degree nights, the near vacuum of the Moon surface, plus intense UV radiation from the Sun, not to mention no access to water or nutrients.


So even if we did leave some microbes up there, they're almost definitely all dead by now.


Rest in peace, little microbes.


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Brown, Mark. "Astrobiologists Test Whether Extremophiles Could Survive on Europa." Wired. 5 Oct, 2011. Web.

David, Leonard. "Moon Microbe Mystery Finally Solved." Space, 2 May 2011. Web.

Mitchell, F.J. and Ellis, W.L. "Bacterium Isolated from Lunar-Retrieved TV Camera." Harvard. Web.

Noever, David. "Earth Microbes on the Moon." NASA, 1 Sept. 2008. Web.

"Remembering Apollo 12." SciShow Space, YouTube. 13 Oct. 2015. Web video.

Rummel, John. "A Microbe on the Moon." NASA, Web.

Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "Have We Contaminated the Moon?" SkyFeed, 12 March 2018. Web article.

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