Google Lunar X Prize Agrees to Respect Historical Lunar Sites

Google Lunar X Prize Agrees to Respect Historical Lunar Sites

Last week, NASA and the X Prize Foundation announced that the Google Lunar X Prize will recognize NASA guidelines to protect U.S. lunar artifacts of historic and scientific value. With the voluntary guidelines designating varying “keep-out” zones, this means that the vehicles of the 26 teams vying for the $30 million in prizes will not have free room to rove.

NASA spacecraft on the Moon and items transported there by the Apollo crews, just like the samples returned to Earth by the astronauts, remain the property of the U.S. Government.  Similarly, the Luna spacecraft and Lunokhod robotic rovers sent to the Moon by the Soviet Union are the property of the Russian government.  Under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, however, no government can claim sovereignty over the Moon itself, so there are no legally binding rules about what can or cannot be done at the landing sites or along the routes that the U.S. astronauts or Soviet robotic rovers traversed.

The guidelines were developed by NASA in an attempt to preserve U.S. sites, at least, for historical purposes as other countries and companies plan new lunar missions and could be a step towards international guidelines.  The announcement last week was made as part of the Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) organized by the International Astronautical Federation and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics,  

NASA released the guidelines in July 2011 after assembling data from previous lunar studies, and analysis of samples of NASA’s Surveyor 3 spacecraft returned by the Apollo 12 crew.  Surveyor 3 was one of seven U.S. robotic spacecraft sent to soft-land on the Moon in the late 1960s as precursors to the Apollo missions. Apollo 12 landed close enough to Surveyor 3’s landing site that the crew was able to visit it and retrieve some of its components for study back on Earth.

Apollo 12 astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad stands next to Surveyor 3 on lunar surface, with Apollo 12 lander Intrepid in background. Photo Credit:  NASA Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean.

The guidelines were developed under the leadership of Rob Kelso, a former shuttle flight director who is now NASA Johnson Space Center’s manager for lunar commercial services, and involved experts in history, science and flight planning.  According to the document, these will serve as interim recommendations for lunar vehicle design and mission planning teams until a more formal U.S. government guidance or a multilateral approach is developed.

The guidelines apply to a variety of artifacts and sites on the Moon, including Apollo lunar surface landing and roving hardware, specific indicators of U.S. robotic or human-robotic lunar presence (e.g. footprints), and impact sites. One section is devoted to the issue of mobility and details recommended exclusion zones and their rationale for specific sites. For example, the Apollo 11 and 17 sites, which “carry special historical and cultural significance”  would be roped off completely “by prohibiting visits to any part of the site and that all visiting vehicles remain beyond the artifact boundaries … of the entire site.” These boundaries have a radial extent of 75 meters for Apollo 11 and of 225 meters for the Apollo 17 site. Greater access is recommended in turn for the Apollo 12, 14, 15 and 16 sites to allow for the close inspection of their individual components, considered ongoing experiments in space weathering as they are exposed to the harsh environment on the lunar surface. 

In the joint announcement, the X Prize Foundation said it will take these guidelines into consideration as it judges the mobility plans of the teams participating in the competition.  According to the release, “NASA and the next generation of lunar explorers share a common interest in preserving humanity’s first steps on another celestial body and protecting ongoing science from the potentially damaging effects of nearby landers.”

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