… In the next few years a slew of countries, including China, India, and Japan, are looking to put unmanned probes on the lunar surface. But more unprecedented are the 26 teams currently racing to win the Google Lunar X Prize – a contest that will award $20 million to the first private company to land a robot on the lunar surface, travel a third of a mile, and send back a high-definition image before 2015.
With all this activity, NASA is somewhat nervous about its own lunar history. The agency recently released a set of guidelines that aim to preserve important heritage locations such as the Apollo landing and Ranger impact sites. The report, available since 2011 to members of the private spaceflight community, was publicly posted at NASA’s website and officially accepted by the X Prize foundation on May 24.
“NASA has recognized that these sites are important to mankind and have to be protected to make sure there’s no undue damage done to them,” said John Thornton, president of Astrobotic Technology Inc., a company competing for the prize.
Though NASA has no way of enforcing the requirements, they are designed to protect materials and scientific equipment at historical lunar sites as well as future landing sites. The guidelines have been made available internationally, and the agency welcomes other nations to participate in and improve upon them, said NASA spokesperson Joshua Buck in an e-mail.
NASA is asking anyone that makes it to the lunar surface to keep their landing at least 1.2 miles away from any Apollo site and about 1,600 feet from the five Ranger impact sites. The distance should keep the old equipment safe from a terrible accident or collision. It will also would put the new equipment “over the lunar horizon” relative to the relics, and prevent any moon dust – known to be a highly abrasive material – from sandblasting NASA’s old machines.
The Apollo 11 and 17 sites — the first and last places visited by man — are singled out in particular for extra care and respect. Robots are prohibited from visiting both sites and are requested to remain outside a large radius (250 feet for Apollo 11 and 740 feet for Apollo 17) to prevent a stray rover from accidentally harming hardware or erasing any footprints.
“Only one misstep could forever damage this priceless human treasure,” reads the report.
Looking toward a possible high-traffic lunar future, the report also warns that frequent and repeated visits would have a cumulative and irreversible degrading effect on the historical sites. Other guidelines ask that rovers avoid kicking dust onto existing scientific experiments, like the laser-ranging lunar reflectors that are used to measure the distance between the Earth and moon.