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Who Owns the Artifacts Abandoned on the Moon?

By Wesley Fenlon

Space laws and treaties haven't yet dealt with the issue of preserving lunar relics, or figuring out who, if anyone, owns them.

On Saturday, China made its first contact with the surface of the moon. An unmanned lander touched down on the moon's surface, letting loose a rover that will spend the next three months rolling around and studying the lunar surface. The Chang'e probe and Yutu rover make China only the third country to land (and not crash) a craft on the moon, and was man's first return to the Moon since 1976.

China likely won't be the last country to make a controlled moon landing, and soon there may be craft landing on the moon that don't represent a country at all. XPRIZE, for example, is currently pushing for a controlled robotic landing on the moon.

The recent flurry of interest and activity surrounding moon landings has raised an interesting question: Who owns the stuff on the moon? We don't mean the moon itself. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty clearly stated "the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind; outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States; outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means."

But what about the things left behind on the moon? The golf balls Alan Shepard hit, the footprints NASA astronauts left, the relics, and even debris, left over from NASA's many lunar landings?

Photo credit: NASA

Those artifacts are the subject of an interesting Smithsonian Mag piece, which studies the nebulous rights and claims that relate to objects left in space. It's not quite as scary a subject as the issue of space rights was back in the 1960s, when the Outer Space Treaty was enacted. Back then, you can find plenty of examples of lunar US and Soviet military bases in sci-fi and pop culture. The Treaty also specifically banned nuclear weapons being deployed on the moon for, well, pretty obvious reasons.

"Failed instruments at lunar landing sites might reveal engineering missteps, the way a sunken ship on earth could tell us something about its commanders or passengers."

Even after the treaty, and after both countries mostly stopped lunar exploration, the idea of a lunar base stuck around. A US-Soviet shootout on the moon was even a plot point in Clive Cussler's 80s thriller Cyclops. The trash astronauts left behind isn't exactly a contentious issue, by comparison. But it's still important.

Smithsonian Mag points out that you can read a list of nearly all the objects NASA has left on the moon. The list takes up 18 pages. It includes equipment like bubble level indicators and sun compasses, a feather and hammer used in an experiment, the seat of a spacecraft. NASA left a lot of stuff on the moon, and anthropologist Beth O'Leary says they should be protected.

Smithsonian Mag writes: " 'These sites are time capsules,” says Beth O’Leary, an anthropologist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. They host valuable artifacts for archaeologists and anthropologists who want to study humanity’s growing space heritage. Failed instruments at lunar landing sites, for example, might reveal the engineering or management missteps behind them, the same way the sinking of a ship on earth could tell us something about its commanders or passengers. Archaeologists might even want to study the DNA of microbes in the astronauts’ waste for clues to the diet and health of these early pioneers. 'People’s idea is that archaeologists are interested in 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago,' O’Leary says, 'but here we’re talking about the modern past.' "

With China's recent landing, and more landings likely in the near future, the preservation is worth thinking about. But the United States can't exactly pass a law demanding the preservation of space relics, when it doesn't have any claim to jurisdiction over the moon itself. O'Leary got California and New Mexico to list Apollo objects in their historic registries, which offers a very small, symbolic form of protection, but nothing binding.

O'Leary worked with NASA to help develop guidelines for future lunar landings that would point out the locations of artifacts, and recommend ways to avoid disturbing them. Those guidelines are included in the same document that lists NASA's relics, linked above. But it's still not law, or international treaty. Laws have even been proposed to the US congress to deal with the issue, but they likely conflict with the Outer Space Treaty.

China's Yutu rover, taken by the Chang'e 3 lander. Photo credit: China National Space Administration

In another decade or two, the issue's only going to become more complicated. How will asteroid mining play into space rights? Will private companies be able to claim rights to objects left in space? Will eventual lunar outposts are staging areas be freely available to all countries? The issue starts with protecting Buzz Aldrin's footprint, but it's eventually going to tie into something much, much bigger.