12 June 2021

Lunar Leftovers: How the Moon Became a Trash Can

We hear about the amount of waste floating around space all the time. However, the biggest trash can outside of earth’s atmosphere is in fact the moon.

The moon has only been accessible for decades, rather than hundreds of years. However, in the short time available to humanity it is estimated that we have left over one hundred and seventy thousand kilos of debris on the surface of our once pristine satellite. Here are some of the more notable pieces of trash on the moon.

Luna 2 – 1959
If HG Wells and others were correct and there were civilizations on the moon then they would have expelled a communal gasp of horror in 1959 when the first piece of man made technology hit the moon dust. Looking now like some steam punk version of what we regularly send spinning in to space, Luna 2 was launched by the Soviets when the Cold War was at its height. The collision with the moon at least proved one thing – that our nearest neighbor in space has no appreciable magnetic field. To add insult to injury, half an hour after Luna 2 hit the moon, so did the third stage of its rocket.

Ranger 4 – 1962
Ranger 4 was the first US craft to read the moon and it did so with a bang. The power of the central computer failed and it drifted aimlessly for a while before it made impact with the surface of the far side of the moon. The original plan was for the Ranger to fly over the surface and transmit close up pictures to earth, before crashing. The catastrophic failure of its systems meant that it did the latter but not the former. A great shame, perhaps, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

Luna 5 -1965
The Luna 5 was designed with one remit – to further study the scientific possibility of a soft landing on the moon. It was destined to make a crash landing on the Sea of Clouds. A course correction made the craft spin around like an outer space Kylie Minogue – the flotation gyroscope was faulty – and that was the end of the science bit. It was at least the second Russian craft to reach the moon even if it did not do so in quite the way that had been anticipated. The same fate met Luna 7 and Luna 8. Things were not looking good until…

Luna 9 – 1966
1966 – The Beatles controlled the airways of the planet below but all eyes were looking upwards in anticipation of the first soft lunar landing. Luna 9 did not disappoint. It sent a series of TV and radio signals from the surface and finally proved one thing that had been disquieting scientists for many years. That was that the moon would not simply swallow up anything that landed on it but the surface was able to hold significantly heavy man made objects. After three days contact was lost with Luna 9 and so it joined the rest of the defunct junk beginning to pile up on the lunar landscape.

Surveyor 1 – 1966
It took the USA a further three months to make it first soft lunar landing and that was behind the successful Russian craft Luna 9 and Luna 10. It was more of a ‘see if we can’ mission than anything else and there were no scientific experimental equipment on board. However, this was a significant boost for NASA as the TV system on board transmitted images back to earth which excited the general public. A huge amount of data was gathered about radar reflectivity and how much the surface could bear in terms of weight which would prove invaluable later. Another plus – the television transmissions continued for six whole months after landing.

Apollo 11 - 1969
The list of Lunas and Surveyors continued, some crashing and some making successful landings. Of course the significant date in terms of humanity and the moon is July 21 1969. The Eagle landed and left behind it quite a lot of stuff. Among the objects they left were an American flag and a plaque which reads Here Men From The Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind. They also left being a memorial bag containing such items as a gold olive branch and a disk carrying messages of greeting from world leaders. After The Eagled ascended back in to space its ascent stage was jettisoned. It is thought that after a few months circling the moon its orbit would have decayed and rejoined the descent stage on the moon.

Moon Buggy – 1971
Possibly one of the more useful objects left on the moon during the Apollo mission was the Lunar Buggy – if of course it still worked (which it wouldn’t). There are three altogether on the surface, gently gathering dust, left over from Apollo 15 through to 17. First used in 1971 it hugely increased the mobility of the astronauts. It provided the most fun experience possible outside of earth’s atmosphere - possibly to this very day.

Chang’e 1 – 2007
The list is not exhaustive and there are those attempts by the European Space Agency, Japan and India that have not been included. About the most recent debris on the moon is from the 2007 Chang’e 1, seen here being launched. It was the first stage of China’s extremely ambitious Lunar Exploration Program. In March of 2009 the satellite impacted on the surface of the moon. China insisted that it was a controlled and planned impact. This may well be so as the craft had already had its mission extended by a year and was considered as still being controlled from earth.

Finally, though, does any of this junk still work?
The answer is yes, but not a definite or deafening answer in the affirmative. The Apollo program left behind it (as did Lunokhod 2) several vital pieces of Lunar laser ranging equipment. Lasers down here on earth are pointed at the ones on the moon and the time in which it takes the light to return is measured. In this way the distance to the moon can be measured and monitored. Apollo 11 left the first one in 1969 and it has had forty years of continuous operation ever since.