NASA Looks to Protect Historic Sites on the Moon- page 2 | Science | Smithsonian
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The Apollo 11 mission left behind more than 100 artifacts, including a spacesuit worn by Buzz Aldrin. (NASA)

NASA Looks to Protect Historic Sites on the Moon

Scientists worry that a contest to send robotic rovers to the moon will threaten lunar landmarks

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While archaeologists take a hands-off approach to the six Apollo landing sites, researchers are more open to granting access to robotic sites. Charles Vick, a senior analyst at GlobalSecurity.org and an authority on the Russian space program, says historians could learn a lot about the still-shrouded Soviet space program by studying equipment left behind during the USSR's Luna probes, which landed between 1966 and 1976. In 1969, the USSR's Luna 15 probe crashed into the moon. Its mission was believed to be collecting lunar rocks and returning them to Earth, but scholars in the West still aren't sure. "We're not going to know until we go there and check it out," Vick says.

Without new international agreements, the norms governing lunar archaeology are likely to remain vague. The Lunar X Prize rules state that an entrant must get approval for a landing site and "exercise appropriate caution with regard to the possibility of landing on or near sites of historic or scientific interest." Teams going for the bonus prize must submit a "Heritage Mission Plan" for approval by the judges, "to eliminate unnecessary risks to the historically significant Sites of Interest." (Lunar X Prize participants were scheduled to meet in late May to discuss the rules and guidelines.) Still, the contest rules don't specify what constitutes an unnecessary risk. And there's no guarantee where the competing spacecraft will end up. With no traffic cops on the moon, the only deterrent against damaging sites might be the prospect of negative publicity.

O'Leary says the Lunar X Prize's lack of regulation is "scary"—a sentiment shared by others. But at least one Lunar X Prize entrant, William "Red" Whittaker, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, has a simple solution to minimize risk: after landing, his team's rover would use telephoto lenses to view Tranquility Base from afar.

To Pomerantz, the competition's director, merely debating how to protect lunar history is a welcome sign that humanity is finally on the verge of going back: "It's exciting when questions that seemed distant and hypothetical are becoming not too distant and not too hypothetical after all." For now, archaeologists are just hoping a robotic rover doesn't take a wrong turn.

Michael Milstein writes for The Oregonian in Portland.

Correction: The original version of this story said that among the NASA equipment left behind on the moon was Buzz Aldrin's spacesuit. Not so. But his boots are there.

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