No-fly zones will come into effect on the moon for the very first time by the end of this month! Why, even buffer zones that spacecraft may have to avoid will come into existence. The reason: avoiding any spraying of rocket exhaust or dust onto certain historical sites and artefacts on the moon.
The historical sites are of course the Apollo landing sites and artefacts present on the moon. And the “recommendations” are for preserving and protecting these historical sites. There are currently more than three dozen historical sites that preserve the more than four-decade-old remains.
“Apollo 11 and 17 sites [will] remain off-limits, with ground-travel buffers of 75 metres and 225 metres from each respective lunar lander,” states the July 20 guidelines of NASA. Science journal had obtained the guidelines.
No legal binding
According to Science, by the end of this month NASA is expected to come up with a set of “recommendations” for spacecraft and astronauts visiting the “U.S. government property on the moon.” Of course, these recommendations will not be legally binding as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty makes it clear that the lunar surface has no owner.
Despite the lack of ownership, NASA is hopeful that other countries will respect the U.S. sentiments. Incidentally, the restriction list contains more than the historical sites. For instance, the list includes studying discarded food and abandoned astronaut faeces.
Study of bacteria
Though these restrictions may appear preposterous, there are clear scientific compulsions to collect and study them. For example, studying the discarded food will reveal the viability of bacteria on the moon and, if present, how they have mutated and survived after years of exposure to solar radiation.
It is worthwhile to remember that all scientific experiments conducted on board during space travel are of a few days duration and pale in comparison with decades of constant exposure to several stressful lunar conditions/environment.
Similarly, there are other scientific compulsions to study the artefacts left behind on the moon. For instance, any metallic objects would reveal how these materials have degraded after prolonged exposure to solar radiation and other peculiar conditions prevailing on the moon.
What prompted the space agency to act was the Google Lunar X prize for those landing a robot that moves 500 metres and sends images from the moon. Precise landing near the Apollo sites would get them more money.
Very recently, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) captured the sharpest images ever taken from space of the Apollo 12, 14 and 17 landing sites. The paths made when the astronauts explored the lunar surface have been very clearly captured by the images.
According to NASA, at the Apollo 17 site, the tracks laid down by the lunar rover are clearly visible, along with the last foot trails left on the Moon. The images also show where the astronauts placed some of the scientific instruments that provided the first insights into the Moon's environment and interior.