Remember the biting 2021 “seven minutes of terror” video of NASA’s Perseverance rover parachuting to Mars on a tether from its descent or “jetpack” stage after a 314 million mile journey?
What NASA didn’t tell the watching world was that as its astrobiology rover landed safely on the Red Planet, it dropped off heat shields, parachutes, metal springs, foam , nets and other “space junk” all over the old riverbed. the robot was sent on exploration.
Now, Perseverance and his helicopter Ingenuity continue to find lasting memories of his spectacular entry, descent and landing on Mars. It’s not the first rover to do so, with NASA’s Curiosity identifying pieces of its own trash on the floor of Gale Crater.
Should we pollute Mars?
Yes. Yes, we should – and future humans will cherish our “space junk” from these, the early stages of exploration, scientists say.
“When we study ancient civilizations on Earth, we look through their trash heaps,” said Dr. Bethany Ehlmann, professor of planetary sciences at the California Institute of Technology and Mars rover scientist. “But they’re not just piles of trash, they’re artifacts of our first steps on Mars.”
In short, our interplanetary waste will be a treasure trove for space archaeologists in the near future.
“The landing zones for these rovers will one day be national parks when humans eventually land on Mars,” Ehlmann said. “And parts of the landing systems and foam that may have come loose when the rover landed will become historical markers.”
Of course, it won’t just be bits of foam and metal stuck between the rocks that will make up the extent of the space agencies’ “space junk.” Persistence itself will stop working in due course, probably in about a decade and likely due to a dust storm. A similar fate awaits the Ingenuity helicopter as well as the Chinese Zhurong rover, which is currently exploring Utopia Planitia. NASA’s Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity rovers stopped working years ago.
With the exception of bits and pieces from the NASA and ESA helicopter-assisted Mars Sample Return mission, everything that goes to Mars dies on Mars. Take a look at a list of man-made objects on Mars and you’ll find that the Red Planet is covered in landing sites strewn with remnants. Some have been spotted and examined from orbit while others, like several Soviet landers from the 1970s that returned no radio signals, are simply estimated. The crashed 1971 Mars 2 mission contains a vacuum cleaner-sized robot on skis and attached by an umbilical cord.
A future exhibition in a future museum on Mars?
Most of this precious Martian history is covered in dust, as recreated in the 2015 Hollywood film The Martian when stranded astronaut Mark Watney travels for a month across the Red Planet to dig up the remains of NASA’s 1987 Pathfinder lander in order to use its cameras to communicate with Earth.
“All their traces will be blown away but the material will be covered in dust and preserved,” said Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist in the department of archeology at Flinders University in South Australia. She thinks people have an emotional attachment to many rovers on Mars. “Imagine if the Ingenuity helicopter could go out and photograph Curiosity or one of the old dust covered rovers, it would be such an incredible image,” Gorman said.
Since humans have yet to land on Mars, it’s hard to imagine the Red Planet having protected national parks and monuments recognizing humans’ first steps on the planet. However, having similar constructions on the Moon doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
The Moon is just as covered in trash. It is estimated that there are approximately 500,000 pounds of trash on the Moon from canisters, cables and cameras, hammers, pliers, and yes, bags of human trash. Most of it, of course, comes from the Apollo missions.
NASA’s History Office has a comprehensive list of artifacts left behind on the Moon, and for good reason. “As the Moon becomes more accessible to national space programs and private companies, it is important that we protect lunar artifacts for their historical and scientific value,” reads the list’s introduction.
Since there is no atmosphere on the Moon, the traces of the first lunar rovers – and, more importantly, the traces of the first human walkers on the moon in the late 1960s and 1970s – will be preserved for several thousands of years.
Or will they? Once humans travel to the Moon in greater numbers and on private missions, these early Apollo landing sites will become targets for souvenir hunters.
“There is an antiquities trade in artifacts looted from archaeological sites and there is also a very large market for collecting space objects,” Gorman said. “You can imagine collectors would pay huge sums of money for a piece of Apollo 11 and that’s something we’ll really have to be careful of.”
Gorman thinks we’re going to have to protect the Apollo sites, but before that, re-visit them to get a sense of their current state and then assess them as they change over time. Only then can we catch the thieves in the act. “Future lunar orbiters will need to monitor these places, track their condition, and also collect evidence from the people who loot them, such as new rover tracks,” said Gorman, who is currently working on heritage management guidelines for the Moon. “This stuff is going to be one of the most collectible ever – we really need to start thinking about it really seriously.”
It’s a double-edged sword, of course, because if you produce a list of valuable collectibles on the Moon, you instantly inflate their value. “We’re working on an international consensus, so if anyone goes to the Apollo 11 landing site, they’re breaking an international treaty,” Gorman said.
The Apollo 11 site is the post-child of historic sites on the Moon, but there is another that is potentially even more important to future archaeologists. In 1959, the USSR’s Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to reach the surface of the Moon. “In 1957 there was the first satellite and just two years later a spacecraft hit the moon,” Gorman said. “It’s breathtaking – the first human site on the moon that also deserves protection.
I wish you clear skies and big eyes.