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Apollo bacteria spur lunar erosion

April 1, 2005 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Images reveal worrying cracks in the face of the Moon.

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Pictures captured by an orbiting spacecraft have revealed that the Moon is being heavily eroded. Images of the lunar surface reveal deep cracks and holes that are slowly but surely releasing gas and dust into space.

"This is serious," says Brad Kawalkowizc, an astrogeologist from the Sprodj Atomic Research Centre in Belgium, who has analysed the pictures. "There really is less Moon up there than there used to be." If the process continues, he adds, the Moon could eventually crumble away to nothing.

Researchers are not yet certain what is causing the erosion. Kawalkowizc suggests that bacteria left behind by the Apollo Moon landings of the 1960s and 1970s may be responsible. These earthly bacteria, exposed to intense ultraviolet radiation on the lunar surface, could have acquired mutations that allow them to digest Moon rocks, he suggests.

I'm amazed that we didn't notice this before.
Earnest Sober
EcoLunar
"If those guys didn't wipe their feet when they stepped off the craft then, yes, there could be bugs up there eating the rock," he says. "And after three decades there must be tonnes of them."

Crater fuss

Tycho crater, the youngest large-impact crater on the Moon's nearside, is particularly badly affected. The erosion has already revealed a large slab of jet-black rock deep in the crater, which has unusual magnetic properties. "We hope to send a manned expedition to investigate," says Haywood Floyd, a senior official with the Canadian National Council of Aeronautics, Newfoundland.

Recriminations are already brewing over why astronomers didn't spot the problem earlier. Amateurs on the ground have reported, on an almost monthly basis, that the light reflected from the Moon shows a dimming pattern: perhaps a sign that its weathered surface was becoming less reflective.

"I'm amazed that we didn't notice this before," says Earnest Sober of EcoLunar, a California-based charity that campaigns for sustainable management of the Moon. "We've only got one Moon and it's about time we started paying it a bit more attention."

One thing on which experts agree is that the Moon's disintegration would be a disaster, as tides on Earth would effectively stop. "This really would be bad for us," comments Pete Swell of the World Surfers' Association. "Life would sure be a lot less fun. And I guess, like, fish and ecosystems might totally be affected too."

Time and tide

But others are seeing a positive side. "Without tides, there would be no need to upgrade London's flood defences for the next two centuries," says coastal geologist Barry Surge of the University of Middle England in Barnstaple, UK. "As it is, if you live on the River Thames flood plain, the Moon is your enemy."

John Koenig, director of Moonbase Alpha, a US project to establish a habitable colony on the Moon, insists that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. "There's absolutely nothing to worry about," he told news@nature.com. "Do you really think we would invest in building a base on prime interplanetary real estate that is evaporating?"

The images of the Moon were captured on 1 April by the Floating Optical Orbital Lens, as part of a multinational effort to photograph the Apollo landing sites. The mission aims to prove, once and for all and at fantastic expense, that the NASA astronauts really did go there.

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