Home » Touchdown in the Lunar South pole, NASA plans to find microbial existence on moon

Touchdown in the Lunar South pole, NASA plans to find microbial existence on moon

Continuing the quest for extraterrestrial life

by Palak Sharma
An astronaut with the US flag and spacecraft by his side standing on the Moon

 The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is set to launch Artemis III, a series of missions to explore life on the moon through the Artemis program. Artemis III is a crewed mission planned to take off in 2025.  Spacecraft Orion will carry astronauts to the Artemis Polar exploration zone, the south polar region of the moon. 

Artemis III to probe microbial existence on the moon 

Scientists believe that there is a probability that life can exist on the moon. The harsh conditions of the lunar surface can provide some microbial life forms, a chance of survival. There is substantial evidence for microbial life existing and surviving in extreme heat and cold conditions on earth.  For instance, thermophilic bacteria (a type of bacteria) survive in temperatures as high as 80 °C, and psychrophilic bacteria in temperatures as low as -12C without freezing. Life began on Earth in microscopic forms and researchers hypothesize that life may exist on the moon in the form of these microorganisms.


Engineers at NASA assembling spacecraft parts in a laboratory at Southern California

Engineers at NASA assembling spacecraft parts in a laboratory at Southern California

      Image credit- Wikimedia commons

Prabal Saxena, a planetary researcher at NASA ‘s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland comments on the research done on the ranges in which microbial life can survive. He believes that in such hostile environments exist some relatively protected areas which can become habitable niches for microbes. Thus, certain sites in the lunar pole could be zones where the possibility for survival of certain life forms exists or even to some extent can potentially encourage the growth of microbial life.

Possible Earth’s remnant on the moon 

The research team further adds that the craters on the moon might have the remnants of our planet. These remnants are available in the form of meteorites. Back in 1972, the Apollo 17 astronauts brought back various geologic samples from the moon to Earth. One of the rocks was found to be a 4-billion-year-old fragment of our planet. Therefore, Heather Graham, an organic geochemist at NASA believes that small pieces of our planet might have been hurled to the moon as Earth’s meteorites.

But the presence of these meteorites does not suggest the survival of microbes as they travelled from Earth to the moon. “While the extraterrestrial transfer of organic molecules from meteoritic sources is very likely, and indeed observed in our own terrestrial meteorite analysis, the transfer of microbes from similar sources does not have the same weight of evidence”, Graham remarked. 

A large lunar stone

A lunar stone weighing 5.3 kg

  Image credit – Wikimedia commons

Graham believes that though meteorites might not be the most eligible carriers of microbes, human beings can be. With crewed mission in the coming days, astronauts might end up transferring some spores in the sites under experiment, where they can sustain in the presence of optimum temperature and protection from radiation. While this will not lead to the growth of microbes to a large extent on the South pole, Graham believes that the upcoming Artemis mission will further help in delivering water and carbon sources to these sites which will encourage the growth of these microbes.  

The aftermath of Artemis III mission

Expeditions to the moon are advancing with greater thirst for discoveries.  Thus, the traffic on the moon will increase and the explorations will continue for a long course of time. 

Paul Lucey of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa suggests that continuous expeditions on the moon can compromise certain investigations. 

In 2018, astronomers at NASA discovered the presence of water ice in some pitch-black craters at the north and south poles of the moon. These permanently shadowed regions are going to be possible sites for observing microbial growth. But a problem presents itself which can compromise the results of the investigations. Spacecraft emissions majorly consist of hydrochloric acid, water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and black carbon. Thus, the flight path of the Artemis spacecraft can end up depositing carbon dioxide and water in these habitable niches. Carbon dioxide being an antimicrobial gas can impact the growth of microbial life.

The explorations according to Lucy will also affect the lunar northern pole too. The atmosphere of the moon is very thin thus the exhaust from the spacecraft can be transferred to the northern pole. Therefore, careful considerations are required for investigations of the habitable niches in the lunar site.

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