Britain’s scurrilous rags recently latched onto a cool scientific paper exploring evidence that the early lunar atmosphere was conducive to life, repackaging it as “ancient aliens” clickbait.
Truly, it was a brilliant Monday for the tabs. But it was business as usual for a pair of fed-up astrobiologists.
Headlines ran the gamut from the Daily Mirror’s “Lunar life? Aliens may have lived on the MOON twice in the past, scientists claim,” published complete with a Getty Images stock photo of a Grey, to more sober coverage by the Daily Star, “Aliens might have lived on the MOON scientists discover in bombshell find” — also published with an almond-eyed alien stock photo.
“It doesn’t particularly surprise me, because, as you well know, journalists have to sell newspapers,” one of the Astrobiology paper’s two authors, Birkbeck, University of London astrobiologist Ian Crawford, Ph.D. tells Inverse. “But since I am over here in Australia, I haven’t seen any of the British press, so I can’t really comment on what they’re saying.”
Crawford’s co-author, Washington State University astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Ph.D., has also taken it in stride.
“I don´t think one has any influence over what the media or press makes out of it,” Schulze-Makuch tells Inverse, “or what angle they pursue.”
The sensationalized headlines are a shame because Crawford and Schulze-Makuch synthesized a lot of fascinating evidence into an exciting hypothesis about the moon’s early atmosphere suggesting that it could have supported life — had life been seeded there in the first place. Their work not only illustrates how habitable planets and moons alike can grow cold and lifeless over time but also how extremophile microbes might have once made their way from the Earth to the Moon.
To know for sure, humans would not only have to learn more about the moon’s chemical make-up and fossil record but also incontrovertibly prove that it once had a magnetic field. An ancient magnetic field would have been instrumental in protecting lunar life from the deadly solar radiation and retaining an adequately dense atmosphere.
“A lot of research is going on into the ancient lunar magnetic field,” he says, “and to really determine its strength and duration (or even if there was one) requires going back to the moon and collecting many more rock samples for that purpose, because the Apollo samples really weren’t.”
The operating theory is that, much like Mars, the moon lost its internal heat, and thus its magnetic field, as the conductive liquid iron convecting in its core gradually slowed down. You can think of it like a battery and copper-wire magnet that eventually runs out of juice, unable to collect enough heat from the sun to stay active.
“If you erupt molten rock onto a planet’s surface,” Crawford says, “like what Kilauea is doing a lot of in Hawaii at the moment, it comes out as a liquid rock and then it cools down and starts to crystalize. If it crystalizes in the presence of a magnetic field, then before it becomes solid, all those little magnetic mineral grains become aligned with the magnetic field and then it freezes or solidifies.”
“This is called paleomagnetism and some of the Apollo rocks indicate (or seem to indicate) the presence of a paleomagnetic field.”