Sydney, Australia (SPX) Dec 10, 2009
Scientists are looking for life in space. So far, they haven't found any life beyond Earth itself. We seem to be getting closer to discovering life somewhere else in our own solar system, with Mars, and some moons of Jupiter and Saturn being considered likely hiding spots for microbes.
Could there be life closer to our home planet? Probably not, but it's worth considering what could be lurking on the Moon.
We've discovered evidence that the polar regions of the Moon are the coldest natural places in the solar system. It's not the sort of environment that's friendly to life. Anything that tried to survive there would certainly freeze. But what could these conditions preserve? Could the Moon be a storehouse of chemicals and structures that have disappeared from other regions of the solar system?
Part of the reason why we explore space is not only to discover life, but to find the precursors to life. Outer space holds the records of what conditions were like when the Earth was young, and life could have been getting started on our planet.
If certain regions on the Moon have been frozen for eons, the Moon could be one of our most promising areas for biotic chemistry research.
This material could have been deposited by comets impacting the Moon, or it could have developed locally through chemical processes. Exactly what we will find, and how it got there, are mysteries waiting to be solved.
Substances awaiting discovery could include organic molecules, amino acids or even crude lipid membranes that resemble the walls of living cells. Even something as simple as checking the chirality, or "left or right-handedness", of the arrangement of atoms in a molecule, could be significant.
Some lifeforms will use one form of a molecule, but cannot absorb the "mirror image" of the same molecule, even though it's really the same chemical.
Getting to this material won't be easy. It will take more than a simple rock scoop or drill to retrieve it, and preserve the material inside. We will need sensors that can perform in-situ analyses of the soil and the volatiles it contains (such as water). Similar instruments have already operated on the surface of Mars.
Some material may even need to be transported in a refrigerated state all the way back to Earth, a challenging task for any mission planner. Keeping the material free from contamination will also be important.
At the moment, most attention on the polar regions is focused on the search for water. The quest for astrobiology shouldn't be forgotten in future missions.
Dr Morris Jones is the author of The New Moon Race, now available from Rosenberg Publishing (www.rosenbergpub.com.au).
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