Lunar and Planetary Institute

Apollo 12 Mission

Science Experiments - Surveyor III Analysis

Picture of Surveyor III spacecraftThe Surveyor 3 spacecraft was launched in April 1967 and was exposed on the lunar surface for 31 months before the Apollo 12 mission. The Apollo 12 Lunar Module landed approximately 160 meters from the Surveyor 3 spacecraft. The crew retrieved several pieces of the Surveyor, including the TV camera and associated electrical cables, the sample scoop, and two pieces of aluminum tubing. These items were returned to Earth and analyzed to determine how they were affected by exposure to the lunar environment.

A number of microscopic craters were observed on the returned pieces. Some were probably the result of micrometeorite bombardment of the Moon. Many of these craters were on the side of the Surveyor facing the Lunar Module. It is likely that these are the result of a sand-blasting effect from dust that was blown away from the Apollo landing site by rocket exhaust. Some darkening of painted surfaces due to the effects of solar radiation was also observed. Several nuts, bolts, and screws were disassembled after being returned to Earth, and none were found to have become cold-welded by their exposure to space.

A particularly important aspect of the Surveyor 3 analysis was the search for living material on the spacecraft. Surveyor was not sterilized prior to launch, and scientists wanted to know if terrestrial microorganisms had survived for two and a half years in space. One research group found a small amount of the bacteria Streptococcus mitis in a piece of foam from inside the TV camera. They believed that these bacteria had survived in this location since before launch. They only found evidence for living material in one of 33 samples from various parts of Surveyor that they cultured. Another research group found no evidence of life inside a section of electrical cable. Some people associated with the curation of the Surveyor 3 materials have suggested that the one positive detection of life may be the result of accidental contamination of the material after it was returned to Earth.

Additional Activity Details (JSC)