WASHINGTON (AFP) – Three rovers, six United States (US) flags, dozens of probes that either landed successfully or crashed, tools, cameras and trash: the Moon is dotted with hundreds of objects as a result of space exploration.
Some experts are calling to grant them heritage status to protect them from future tourists and human activity.
It all started on September 13, 1959 when Soviet probe Luna 2 smashed into Mare Imbrium, its 390 kilogrammes of mass vaporising, no doubt, on impact.
It was followed in succession by more Luna probes, then it was the Americans’ turn with the Ranger and Surveyor programmes.
And then, on July 20, 1969, the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
The pair spent 22 hours on the Sea of Tranquility. They left behind everything that wasn’t necessary to take back: the lunar module’s descent stage, cameras, lunar boots, tongs, commemorative objects, and four “defecation collection devices”.
Five more successful Apollo missions left behind hundreds of additional objects.
All told, the Moon has about a hundred sites where people have left their mark, according to For All Moonkind, a non-profit that seeks to preserve human heritage in space.
That’s about 167 tonnes of material.
Legally, “the sites themselves aren’t protected at all,” said Michelle Hanlon, a law professor at the University of Mississippi who co-founded For All Moonkind in 2017 after Head of the European Space Agency Jan Worner joked that he wanted to bring back the American flag.
“So the boot prints, the rover tracks, where items are on the site, which is so important, from an archaeological standpoint, they have no protection,” she added.
Hanlon fears the Apollo sites will one day attract the attention of tourists, who could kick up lunar dust that cuts like glass and can be highly damaging.
“If somebody were to get too close to the LEM, there’s nothing in international law right now that says you can’t just drive a rover right up to it, and actually take a peek at it,” she said.
“We need protections against inadvertent as well as intentional acts.”
NASA has adopted recommendations, for example, that future expeditions should not land within two kilometres of Apollo sites.
In the US Congress, senators have introduced a “One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space” bill.
But the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is very explicit, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
“Once you start making exclusionary zones, and stopping other countries from their free use and exploration of space, you’re running up against the basic premise of the Outer Space Treaty,” Jack Beard, a space law professor from the University of Nebraska, told AFP.