Thirty-nine years after the last NASA Lunar Roving Vehicle rolled to a halt, more than two dozen privately-funded teams are vying with each other to land a robot on the moon, as part of a quest to win the Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) challenge. Just landing is not enough, however – to claim the $20 million grand prize, the team needs to direct their robot to explore the moon by traveling at least 500 m, not to mention transmitting high definition video and images.
Of course, scattered around the lunar surface lie a host of artifacts from the Surveyor landers, the USSR Luna probes, and various Apollo missions. It seems virtually certain that one or more of the teams competing in the GLXP will succeed deploying its robot and winning the challenge. The question is whether in the process of landing or traveling required 500 m, the ‘bot will interact with one or more of the artifacts. The probability of occurrence rises measurably given the fact that at least one team, Astrobotic, reportedly aims to touch down near Tranquility Base, the Apollo 11 landing site.
Perhaps some of the artifacts, such as film magazines left behind by the astronauts, are of limited importance and can probably survive contact with a rover but what of irreplaceable features like Neil Armstrong's footprint? Given surface conditions, the print probably still shows up in high relief. Or, at least, it will so long as it remains untouched.
The risk of interference with or damage to various artifacts and features has become a matter of increasing concern in scientific, historical, and techno-archaeological circles. On the scientific side, space agencies stand to learn an enormous amount from the condition of mission artifacts after decades of exposure. Untouched, they can provide an enormous amount of information about the degradation of materials and the effect of vacuum exposure, etc. Once they've been altered, their information value drops.
So much for scientific concerns, but much of the historical value of the prints that represent man's first steps on the moon, for example? As commercial space flights increase, eventually, extending to manned lunar landings, maybe even industrial operations in decades to come, how do we protect these artifacts from trespass, damage, or even theft?
According to international space law, no nation can claim ownership or control of the moon, which prevents the United States from designating the Apollo landing sites as protected areas. NASA, moreover, can't regulate the operations of private space firms, although it has developed a set of recommendations designed to guide the GLXP teams with everything from suggested robot speeds to landing trajectories. Still, even if the US Congress enacted legislation requiring compliance, it would only apply to US-based firms.
On the upside, a recent legal article concluded that some legal precedent exists to protect the artifacts, at least in theory. The high-profile nature of the GLXP contest makes it likely that team members will voluntarily comply with NASA suggestions, or at least take care around the Apollo sites, although that doesn't protect against accidents or malfunction. The bigger question comes into play as space tourism develops over the coming decades, along with extraterrestrial industrial processes. What, then, will protect these places, designating them UNESCO sites?
I suspect that it's more likely that the tourists will come, then the damage will occur, then more damage, then a rush for artifacts while NASA debates how to put a fence up and how to pay for it, then the fence, then bolt cutters. Then the ticket takers will show up.
Ah, but if you read the legal opinion, space law does not have any provisions for presumption of abandonment, so those artifacts are not considered abandoned any more than a defunct satellite in orbit is. if an item is not abandoned, it cannot be legally salvaged. The United States government owns the artifacts, so if anybody took them it would be theft. That said, who's going to stop them? I suppose if somebody knew it was happening, they could track reentry and send out the Navy to intercept recovery vessels but the timing would be difficult if the organization in question wanted to hide what they were doing. More to the point, the resolution of current lunar imaging systems is not sharp enough to follow the activities of individuals, let alone see what's in their hands.
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