Life on the moon


THINGS ARE looking up in the celestial neighbourhood – it seems that our solar system is not the series of bleak and inhospitable wastelands we once thought. Only a month ago we reported that Nasa scientists, by firing a satellite into a crater near the moon’s south pole, have proved that there is water on the moon. The agency found enough to pour about two bathtubs, but it suggested there is plenty more locked in ice fields sheltered on the dark side from the sun. This week evidence also emerged that the methane known to be on Mars, more like Earth than any other body in our solar system, was produced on the planet itself.

The moon find has raised hopes about the viability of human settlements there. The cost of transporting water to the moon is prohibitive, at a staggering $100,000 a pound, but the use of local water to drink, breathe (by separating the oxygen through electrolysis), and even to fuel rocket engines, would make a permanent moon base more feasible. The methane find suggests that the red planet may be home to some form of life, albeit of the most primitive microbe-like kind. That possibility has been reinforced by new findings on the re-examination of a 1996 study on the composition of a meteorite. And earlier in the year another study suggested that the amount of oxygen in the oceans on Jupiter’s moon Europa could be enough to support more than just microscopic life-forms, and even that some three million tons of fishlike creatures could, in theory, be living and breathing on Europa.

One would hope such exciting discoveries should provide a fair wind for new space exploration programmes. The Vision for Space Explorationannounced by the Bush administration in 2004 called for a return to the moon by 2020 and the eventual colonisation of Mars. But the Augustine commission, appointed by President Obama to review those plans, reported in July that Nasa will not get back to the moon any time soon unless it gets a lot more money, at least $3 billion a year. Disappointingly, there is substantial scepticism in the commission of the “been there, done that” variety about the benefits of manned lunar missions, let alone the six-months-each-way a trip to Mars would involve.

The good news from Mars is that the stalled US Mars rover, Troy, after six months embedded along the edge of a shallow, sand-filled crater has now begun turning its wheels and making renewed forward progress to the delight of Nasa. Another Mars satellite was launched this year and another three are in the pipeline.