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A Cosmic Junkyard, the Inevitable Echoes of Human Exploration

The Moon, Earth's closest celestial neighbor, has always fascinated humanity with its mysterious allure. Yet, concealed beneath its serene exterior lies a remarkable revelation: it has become an unlikely repository for our terrestrial waste. Recent research suggests that an astonishing 400,000 pounds (181436 kg) of human-made refuse now surrounds the Moon's surface (Nicholson, 2018b). What intrigues me, though, is the strange assortment of objects tucked away in this lunar litter and the important issues they bring up regarding humanity's position elsewhere in the universe.

This accumulation of artificial debris on the Moon's pristine surface is a testament to the numerous missions, both manned and unmanned, that have ventured to the lunar frontier over the decades. These missions have left behind a diverse range of discarded artifacts, from spacecraft fragments and tools to flags and retired lunar modules. But it is the peculiar contents of this cosmic refuse that beckon us to delve deeper into this lunar mystery.


To further examine, the historic Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, widely regarded as the zenith of human space exploration, featured an intriguing practice. Astronauts intentionally left equipment and components on the Moon's surface to conserve fuel and optimize spacecraft weight for the journey home. While this decision was practical, it has created a lasting legacy of abandoned artifacts.



Memmott, M. (2011, September 6). Tracks, Equipment Left By Apollo Missions Visible In New Moon Photos. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2011/09/06/140216986/tracks-equipment-left-by-apollo-missions-visible-in-new-moon-photos

Figure 2: The remains of the Apollo 17 site in the moon's Taurus-Littrow Valley—an image, released in 2011, sharp enough to show the tracks of the astronauts and their lunar rover in unprecedented detail. At top left you can see the mission's ALSEP, or its package of scientific instruments. In the center is the lunar module's descent stage ("Challenger"), as well as the module's experimental pallet, the ladder leading down to the lunar surface, and the life-support backpacks (PLSS) that crew members Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt tossed out of their ascent module just before leaving the moon. You can also see paths left by walking astronauts and tracks left by lunar buggies. The image was captured by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, some 13 to 15 miles above the moon's surface. (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University) (Garber, 2019)



Despite the vastness of the lunar landscape, the environmental repercussions of this lunar litter are far-reaching. Amongst the abandoned artifacts lies a mix of both valuable assets and potential hazards. For example, the reflectors left behind by the Apollo missions for laser-ranging experiments continue to serve as essential tools for scientific investigations. However, alongside these treasures, there resides a medley of detritus, including fuel canisters and defunct spacecraft components, raising both environmental and ethical concerns. One of the most profound dilemmas is the potential contamination of the lunar environment. Could some of these discarded materials carry terrestrial microorganisms? If so, their introduction to the Moon's unique conditions could have extensive implications, potentially undermining future scientific explorations and investigations.


The Moon's transformation into a cosmic junkyard is evidence of humanity's impact on even the most remote environments. The necessity for environmental protection is becoming more urgent as we continue to explore space. The lunar litter particularly acts as a crucial reminder of the need for strict regulations and sustainable procedures in space exploration to maintain the value of celestial bodies.

Whyte, C. (2021, June 8). 7 bizarre objects from the festival's worth of trash left on the moon. New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24332380-500-7-bizarre-objects-from-the-festivals-worth-of-trash-left-on-the-moon/

The strange and eclectic objects left behind on the Moon's surface beckon us to uncover their stories, shedding light on the curious intersection of human ambition and space exploration. From discarded equipment to tributes to fallen astronauts, these items provide a unique glimpse into our history and aspirations in space.




Figure 2: Neil Armstrong’s first photo taken after setting foot on

the moon captures a bag of human waste that was

jettisoned from the spacecraft NASA (Whyte, 2021b).



Some of the items discovered:


- More than 70 spacecraft, including rovers, modules, and crashed orbiters

- 5 American flags

- 2 golf balls

- 12 pairs of boots

- TV cameras

- Film magazines

- 96 bags of urine, feces, and vomit

- Numerous Hasselblad cameras and accessories

- Several improvised javelins

- Various hammers, tongs, rakes, and shovels

- Backpacks

- Insulating blankets

- Utility towels

- Used wet wipes

- Personal hygiene kits

- Empty packages of space food

- A photograph of Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke's family

- A feather from Baggin, the Air Force Academy's mascot falcon, used to conduct Apollo 15's famous "hammer-feather drop" experiment

- A small aluminum sculpture, a tribute to the American and Soviet "fallen astronauts" who died in the space race—left by the crew of Apollo 15

- A patch from the never-launched Apollo 1 mission, which ended prematurely when flames engulfed the command module during a 1967 training exercise, killing three U.S. astronauts

- A small silicon disk bearing goodwill messages from 73 world leaders, and left on the moon by the crew of Apollo 11

- A silver pin, left by Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean

- A medal honoring Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin

- A cast golden olive branch left by the crew of Apollo 11


(Galactic Garbage Can: There’s 400,000 Pounds of Trash on the Moon | the Takeaway | WNYC Studios, n.d.) , (Garber, 2019c)


Sources:


Nicholson, S. (2018b, February 1). The Moon is Covered With 400,000 Pounds of Human Trash. Interesting Engineering. https://interestingengineering.com/science/the-moon-is-covered-with-400000-pounds-of-human-trash

Galactic Garbage Can: There’s 400,000 Pounds of Trash on The Moon | The Takeaway | WNYC Studios. (n.d.-b). WNYC Studios. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/trash-moon-and-why-its-there

Garber, M. (2019, July 16). The Trash We've Left on the Moon. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/12/the-trash-weve-left-on-the-moon/266465/

Whyte, C. (2021b). 7 bizarre objects from the festival's worth of trash left on the moon. New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24332380-500-7-bizarre-objects-from-the-festivals-worth-of-trash-left-on-the-moon/

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