There has been a long-lived bit of Apollo moon landing folklore that now appears to be a dead-end affair: microbes on the moon.
The lunar mystery swirls around the Apollo 12 moon landing and the return to Earth by moonwalkers of a camera that was part of an early NASA robotic lander – the Surveyor 3 probe.
On Nov. 19, 1969, Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean made a precision landing on the lunar surface in Oceanus Procellarum, Latin for the Ocean of Storms. Their touchdown point was a mere 535 feet (163 meters) from the Surveyor 3 lander -- and an easy stroll to the hardware that had soft-landed on the lunar terrain years before, on April 20, 1967. [Video: Apollo 12 Visits Surveyor 3 Probe]
The Surveyor 3 camera was easy pickings and brought back to Earth under sterile conditions by the Apollo 12 crew. When scientists analyzed the parts in a clean room, they found evidence of microorganisms inside the camera.
In short, a small colony of common bacteria -- Streptococcus Mitis -- had stowed away on the device.
The astrobiological upshot as deduced from the unplanned experiment was that 50 to 100 of the microbes appeared to have survived launch, the harsh vacuum of space, three years of exposure to the moon's radiation environment, the lunar deep-freeze at an average temperature of minus 253 degrees Celsius, not to mention no access to nutrients, water or an energy source. [Photos: Our Changing Moon]
Now, fast forward to today.
NASA's dirty little secret?
A diligent team of researchers is now digging back into historical documents -- and even located and reviewed NASA's archived Apollo-era 16 millimeter film -- to come clean on the story.
As it turns out, there's a dirty little secret that has come to light about clean room etiquette at the time the Surveyor 3 camera was scrutinized.
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