NASA to Launch Guidelines to Protect Lunar Artifacts

NASA is unlikely to be the operator of the next spacecraft to land on the moon, but the U.S. space agency is considering sending along some red tape.

As dozens of private teams race to return to the moon as soon as next year, spurred on by $30 million in prize money from Google and the X Prize Foundation, NASA is wrestling with how to safeguard the historic and scientific value of more than three dozen sites containing remnants of America’s golden era of space exploration, including the spot where Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. left the first footprints on the lunar surface. Later this month, the agency plans to issue what it calls “recommendations” for spacecraft, or future astronauts, visiting U.S. government property on the moon. A 20 July version of the guidelines obtained by Science proposes, for example, approaching Apollo landing sites and artifacts at a tangent, to avoid crashing into them, and suggests no-fly and buffer zones to avoid spraying rocket exhaust or dust onto historic equipment. The document also includes a research wish list, written by NASA scientists and engineers, for any private team, or country, sending a craft to the moon. The list ranges from the mundane, such as taking close-up photographs of decades-old laser range-finding mirrors still used by Earth-based astronomers, to more far-out ideas, such as studying discarded food or abandoned astronaut feces.

NASA’s recommendations won’t be legally binding—according to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the lunar surface has no owner—but the agency is hopeful that the teams racing for the moon, which requested the guidelines and have been providing feedback to the agency, will sign on to a final version. The principal motivation is to determine “how we preserve and protect these sites,” says Robert Kelso, NASA’s liaison for beyond-low-Earth-orbit commercial initiatives at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and the developer of the guidelines.

Archaeologists and historians have for more than a decade mused about how to study and curate human artifacts on the moon and even those floating in space. In 2000, anthropologist Beth O’Leary of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, who held a small NASA grant, approached the U.S. National Park Service, which administers the National Register of Historic Places, for help adapting heritage preservation guidelines to cover American-owned artifacts on the moon. At the time, she says, the agency told her it did not have the jurisdiction to work on such guidelines. “The great irony is we don’t own the surface of the moon, so in a sense we don’t own the footprints” left by Apollo astronauts, O’Leary says.

The need for such guidelines became more pressing when about half of the 28 teams vying for the Google Lunar X Prize indicated an interest in going after the “heritage” bonus. The first $20 million of the award is for landing a robot that can move 500 meters and send back images from the moon, but teams can earn up to an extra $4 million by making a precision landing near one of the manned landing sites, says Google Lunar X Prize Senior Director Alexandra Hall.

“What we don’t want to happen is what happened in Antarctica at Scott’s Hut,” says Roger Launius, senior curator of space history at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “People took souvenirs, and nothing was done to try to preserve those until fairly late in the game.”

Lunar looting is unlikely anytime soon. X Prize competitors seeking the heritage bonus will probably carry only cameras, Kelso notes, so the risks NASA assessed had more to do with avoiding crashes with artifacts or knocking abrasive lunar dust onto them. An attempted $1.7 million sale of a moon rock via eBay earlier this year suggests that demand for lunar artifacts would be high, however, if a sample-return mission were possible. One NASA engineer points out that the golf ball hit by astronaut Alan Shepherd still lies in a lunar crater.

In the 20 July guidelines, NASA proposes that the Apollo 11 and 17 sites remain off-limits, with ground-travel buffers of 75 meters and 225 meters from each respective lunar lander. Furthermore, NASA simulations and footage from previous lunar missions led Kelso to conclude that 2-kilometer-radius no-fly zones over each site would prevent rocket exhaust from contaminating artifacts. NASA, however, would condone limited activities among the artifacts of other sites, according to the document.

And there are lessons to be learned by poking around some of the less historic Apollo sites, suggests NASA’s Mike Squire, who led the committee of engineers that contributed to Kelso’s guidelines. Lunar rovers and other artifacts could serve as “witness plates” for measuring radiation, micrometeorites, and moon dust, much as Apollo 12 astronauts collected pieces of the Surveyor 3 lander for study back on Earth. High-resolution photos of one of the rovers could show how its various materials have degraded in the lunar environment, for example.

Both the engineers’ appendix and a similar one crafted by NASA scientists note that observations from a new lander might help resolve the ongoing debate over whether and how lunar dust mobilizes at lunar sun up and sun down (Science, 24 June, p. 1493). But answering that question will require well-planned imaging. “Integrating lunar scientists into a Google X Prize team would be a real bonus for both sides,” says NASA planetary scientist Barbara Cohen in Huntsville, Alabama, who helped write the scientific appendix.

And those feces? To make room for rock samples on the return trip, Apollo astronauts left behind food, “defecation collection containers,” and bags of urine. The NASA guidelines suggest that an instrument on a future lunar robot could “investigate the state of biological matter” in these items, perhaps determining whether any bacteria remain viable—and how they’ve mutated—after decades of exposure to solar radiation.

This story first published by Science Magazine: [pdf] [html].

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