Space

New analysis of Apollo lunar samples solves decades-old mystery

New analysis of Apollo lunar s...
The Apollo 12 mission's Astronaut Alan L. Bean collecting a container of lunar soil
The Apollo 12 mission's Astronaut Alan L. Bean collecting a container of lunar soil
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The Apollo 12 mission's Astronaut Alan L. Bean collecting a container of lunar soil
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The Apollo 12 mission's Astronaut Alan L. Bean collecting a container of lunar soil

A NASA-funded research team has confirmed the origin of organic matter found in lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions. It has long been known that the soil samples collected in the late 60s and early 70s contained amino acids, but the technology to determine where they came from has not been available until now.

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are central to creating organic structures like skin and hair. When the organic matter was found in soil samples brought back from the moon during the Apollo missions, there was a big question mark over how exactly it had ended up there, as the environment on the Lunar surface is completely inhospitable to any known forms of life.

It's generally accepted that there are four possibilities. Firstly, it's possible that the solar wind – a weak charged particles from the sun – contained the constituent elements of amino acids, and landed them on the lunar surface, with them later forming together to form the organic matter.

The second possibility is similar to the first, but with the precursor molecules arriving on the Lunar surface from rocket exhaust, while the third postulates that they were delivered to the Moon via asteroids, which are thought to habor chemical reactions that create amino acids.

The final possibility has perhaps always been the most likely – that the organic compounds are simply the product of terrestrial contamination, from equipment brought to the moon during the Apollo missions, or introduced during handling when they arrived back on Earth.

When they were first analyzed, scientists were able to determine that the samples contained organic material, but technological limitations meant that they couldn't ascertain their origin with any degree of certainty. With all the benefits of modern technology, the new team of researchers attacked the mystery once more.

Taking seven samples for analysis, the team first found that there were very low concentrations of amino acids present – between 105 to 1,910 parts per billion. Utilizing the high sensitivity of equipment in NASA's Goddard Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory, the researchers were then able to determine the isotopic composition of the samples, which provided answers to the decades old mystery.

Analysis revealed that the samples contained more Carbon-12 isotopes than larger, less reactive Carbon-13 – which correlates with what you would expect to find in terrestrial life. This essentially confirms that the organic matter originates from terrestrial contamination, rather than from asteroids, solar wind or rocket exhaust.

Furthermore, the volume of amino acids found in the samples relative to their position on the lunar surface simply doesn't tally with any of the other theories. For example, if solar winds were responsible for the matter, then the sample taken from closest to the surface would contain a higher number of amino acids. This wasn't found to be the case.

Similarly, if rocket exhaust was responsible for the amino acids, then they would have been found in a higher concentration directly beneath the lunar module. Again, this wasn't found to be the case.

The more the researchers studied the samples, the more the evidence mounted up. There are two versions of amino acid molecules – left and right – which are mirror images of one another. Terrestrial life favors left-handed amino acids, so you'd expect to find more of that type if the samples were contaminated by equipment or handling on Earth. When the researchers studied the soil in the lab, they found just that, further suggesting that terrestrial contamination is to blame for the presence of the organic matter.

However, while most of the evidence points to the amino acids originating back on Earth, it's likely that a small percentage of the matter came from asteroids, with the researchers finding some amino acids that are very rare in terrestrial biology, but commonly found in meteorites.

"People knew amino acids were in the lunar samples, but they didn't know where they came from," said Jamie Elsila of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "The scientists in the 1970s knew the right questions to ask and they tried pretty hard to answer them, but they were limited by the analytical capabilities of the time. We have the technology now, and we've determined that most of the amino acids came from terrestrial contamination, with perhaps a small contribution from meteorite impacts."

The research is also a reminder of the importance of contamination control for future missions.

"This work highlights the fact that even with thoughtful and careful contamination control efforts, trace organics in extraterrestrial samples can be overwhelmed by terrestrial sources," said Elsila. "Future missions emphasizing organic analysis must consider not only contamination control but also include 'witness samples' that record the environment and potential contamination as the mission is built and launched to understand the unavoidable contamination."

Source: NASA

12 comments
EUbrainwashing
“Once you eliminate the greater improbabilities, whatever remains, no matter how it improbable it may appear, it probably is the truth.” Maybe this sample did not come from the moon at all! That would be a simple explanation.
Nik
This will get the conspiracy theorists going. "The samples aren't really from the moon, they're just earth samples that weren't properly sterilized!"
Carl23
Interesting article. Too bad that the one comment so far is from "EUbrainwashing", an obvious Moon Hoax nut. Seriously, is there anyone more stupid or gullible than a Moon Hoaxer? Why aren’t there stars in the pictures? (they know nothing about basic photography or how the human eye works) Where’s the blast crater under the LEM? (they can’t do simple math and figure out that the average pressure exerted on the surface is about 1 psi) But, but, but the Van Allen Belts! (would rather believe some internet kooks than ALL the experts, who know that rocketing through at 25,000 mph presents a very small, acceptable risk) You can’t form footprints without moisture! (in sand maybe, but in dust it’s easy) The Earth should look 6 times bigger than the Moon in the photos! (no, it should look 4 times bigger, and it does…both look smaller in photos, but the proportions are correct) How come all the pictures are perfect? (they’re not, but the ones published most often are the good ones…do Moon hoaxers distribute the vacation photos where someone’s head was cut off?) Why can’t you hear the sound of the engine over Armstrong’s voice? (among other things, they must think sound is conducted in a vacuum) If we did it back then, why aren’t we there now? (it’s technically challenging and expensive; they don’t understand that you can only be first once…) And on, and on, and on….all dumb, all easy to disprove. These mental midgets lack a basic understanding of science, the ability to do a tiny bit of research, and the intelligence to recognize flawed arguments. What they do have is the amazing ability to favor the word of random internet kooks over experts, and then refer to others as “sheeple”. Again, is there anyone more stupid or gullible than a Moon hoaxer? Maybe a Flat Earther, Young Earth Creationist, 9-11 Twoofer, or a Sandy Hook Twoofer. Maybe. Don’t forget to accuse me of being a paid, trained CIA employee!
tampa florida
NASA’s motto - If you can’t Make it Fake it "No manned spacecraft now exists that can withstand the radiation from the Van Allen belts, through which a craft must traverse to make it to the Moon." -SpaceCast News Service, March 9, 1998 CONCLUSION APOLLO WAS FAKE
davidfwalter02@gmail.com
I saw no mention in the article of lunar contamination via material ejected as a result of meteor strikes on earth. If nothing else, the "dinosaur killer" strike probably ejected material with biological content, some of which would be distributed across the moon's surface, and later mixed in the moon dust.. There have been many possible opportunities, since even before cellular life emerged on Earth's surface. Dave Walter
featherstone
Really? So with tiny, under 2M parts per billion, levels of contamination, the samples are not from the moon......the only other possibility, taking into consideration your contention, is that it came from the earth. I wonder what the concentration of amino acids is in my cats box? And the way my dogs mark the plants and water hydrants along our way EVERY night, the contamination COULD probably get that high. Is there anywhere on earth that that low level of contamination could be observed?
salcen
this shows how careless we have been!if those compounds had been deadly we would all have been dead! a big lesson to be learned!.
rpark
...simple polarimetry tests were available in the 70's to determine AA dexter or levo polarity, as well as, isotope quantitative analysis-- this explanation doesn't ring true to me.
owlbeyou
Hey carl23, I was taking your arguments with some validity until you dropped the 911 bomb. If some people are hoax nutters, then that makes you a believer of the alibi that's got all kinds of holes in it. That's what makes the world go round! Besides, there's this Russian dude who recently said he wants to send a probe to the moon to find the actual footprints left behind. Stay tuned.