Why Scientists Are Calling for the Moon to Be Better Protected From Development

Only a few lunar sites are ideal for certain cutting-edge research—and they’re under threat from mining, satellites and bases, scientists argue

The Moon's North Pole
The Moon's North Pole NASA/JPL

Over the weekend, the U.S. private spacecraft Odysseus, which launched to the moon on February 15, was declared to be permanently dormant after failing to radio from the lunar south pole. Its short-lived yet “very successful” mission gathered valuable data, despite the lander falling onto its side and becoming unable to generate power.

While Odysseus joined a relatively small cohort of spacecraft currently on the moon’s surface, lunar missions are quickly picking up the pace. Now, a groundswell of pending projects—for mining, base construction and communication satellites—are on the horizon. By the end of 2026, at least 22 international missions are expected to land on the moon, per the Guardian’s Ian Sample.

At the same time, researchers are seeking to protect the lunar surface’s most precious sites for scientific study from the onslaught of government and economic interests.

“We are at risk of a Wild West scenario due to the rivalries between competing space agencies and commercial interests,” Joseph Silk, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, tells Space.com’s Leonard David. “The number of desirable lunar sites is limited.”

The moon hosts several sites of extraordinary scientific importance (SESIs) to astronomy. On Monday, researchers argued for these places to be protected in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. The paper was included in a two-part issue based on a discussion led by Silk and three other researchers last month.

A view of Plum Crater, which was visited by the two moon-exploring crewmen of the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission, on their first extravehicular activity (EVA) traverse, April 21, 1972.
A view of Plum Crater, which was visited by the Apollo 16 astronauts on April 21, 1972. NASA

Only within the last 20 years have astronomers discovered locations on the moon where conditions are ideal for the study of the early universe. The far side of the moon, for example, is one of the most radio-silent places in our solar system, as radio transmissions and interference from Earth are blocked. From there, radio telescopes can peer into the universe’s past to a time before the stars formed—or search for evidence of technologically advanced alien life, writes the Guardian.

But because of the far side’s mountainous terrain, scientists say the installation of telescopes is possible at only three sites—and one in particular is rich in helium-3, which space mining companies have identified as a key element in quantum computers and fusion energy.

“We need to preserve the far side for exciting science that includes measuring magnetic fields associated with potentially habitable exoplanets and uncovering the mysteries of the unexplored Dark Ages of the early universe—using low radio frequency observations,” Jack Burns, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of a paper on astronomy from the far side of the moon, tells Space.com.

In a testament to the research potential of the lunar far side, the International Academy of Astronautics held the first-ever “Moon Farside Protection Symposium” last week, which raised awareness about the threats to radio astronomy on the lunar surface.

On the 20th day of the Artemis I mission, Orion captured the Earth rising behind the Moon following the return powered flyby
On the 20th day of the Artemis I mission, the uncrewed Orion capsule imaged the Earth rising behind the moon. NASA Johnson

Another scarce resource are the moon’s “cold traps,” located along craters near the north and south poles, where sunlight hasn’t been able to reach for billions of years. Among the universe’s most frigid places, they are the perfect location for infrared telescopes, which are specifically designed to operate at extremely cold temperatures. These could potentially collect images of Earth-sized exoplanets, and seismometers placed at cold traps could measure the moon’s own movement amidst gravitational waves.

But these sensitive locations would lose their scientific value if rovers, mining technologies and satellites began operating nearby, researchers say.

“This is the first time humanity has to decide how we will expand into the solar system,” Martin Elvis, an astronomer at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a co-author of the new paper on SESIs, tells the Guardian. “We’re in danger of losing one-of-a-kind opportunities to understand the universe.”

The last major international agreement on space—the Outer Space Treaty, ratified by 110 countries—dates to October 1967, when the idea of mining on the moon was more science fiction than an imminent possibility. The treaty bars the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space and outlines that “countries are to avoid contaminating and harming space or celestial bodies.”

In 2020, the non-binding Artemis Accords, which outline best practices of research in space, were agreed upon by the United States and seven other countries’ national space agencies. The pact protects historic sites on the moon and establishes safety zones around lunar equipment. But key nations—including Russia and China—have not signed on. Additionally, the accords allow private mining and fail to designate protections for sites with research potential.

“We need SESI protections in a timeframe of half a decade or so to prevent important forms of irreversible damage,” Alanna Krolikowski, a political scientist at Missouri University and a co-author of the SESI paper, tells the Guardian. “It’s really important to reach beyond the usual suspects in the established spacefaring states and build a genuinely global consensus.”

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