Will Israel's spaceship blow away Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the moon?
The Beresheet spacecraft is set to land in the Sea of Tranquility, in the general vicinity of the Apollo 11 landmarks.
Millions of people around the world watched as Israel launched its Beresheet craft into outer space on Thursday night. When it arrives at its destination in mid-April, the small Mediterranean country will become only the fourth nation to ever land on the moon.
Which begs the question: Since so few people and machines have ever actually touched the moon, what will happen when the spaceship arrives? When the Beresheet gets within about 16 feet of the lunar surface, it will shut off its engines and attempt to freefall – gently – onto the moon's surface. But will it kick up any dust? Could it, perhaps, blow away Buzz Aldrin's iconic bootprint?
The concerns are more than just an intellectual exercise, but are practical in nature. When the Apollo 12 astronauts arrived on the moon in Nov. 1969, they landed much closer than expected to the unmanned Surveyor III spacecraft which had been on the moon since 1967. The older ship was minding its own business when blasting gravel from the arrival of the new Apollo rocket caused some damage to its outer hull.
Avi Loeb, an Israeli physicist and chair of Harvard's astronomy department, validated the concern when we reached him today. "Indeed, as we see more landings on the moon, humans will leave more scars on it and make it less pristine," he told From The Grapevine. He pointed out that NASA already "enforces tight regulations on the sterilization of space vehicles in an effort to avoid contamination of space targets with terrestrial microbes."
The Beresheet's landing site will be on the northern hemisphere of the moon in what's known as the Sea of Tranquility, the same general area as the Apollo 11 landing site. It's where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin famously took their first moon walk, planting an American flag onto the surface of the moon. "Houston, Tranquility Base here," Armstrong radioed to the control room back on earth. "The Eagle has landed." Three small craters to the north of the landing area have since been named Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong to honor the Apollo 11 crew.
It's not just Aldrin's bootprint that's up there. NASA keeps a running tab of all the Apollo items that have been left on the moon – including a hammer, a camera and a pair of tongs. Loeb suggests a practical solution for this growing collection of space archaeology. "The early footprints could be preserved in lunar museums," he offered.
Michelle Hanlon, a space law expert and co-founder of For All Moonkind, is working to help preserve the Apollo 11 spots, perhaps even making them a UNESCO World Heritage site. "There is nothing to stop anything or anyone from running over humankind’s first footprints on the moon," she said.
But it's important to keep in mind that the Sea of Tranquility is more than 500 miles wide, and the Beresheet ship is only about the size of a smart car. "We won’t land next to Apollo missions," Yonatan Winetraub, SpaceIL's co-founder, revealed to From The Grapevine. "The moon is big and there is enough space for everyone."
The Beresheet's arrival on the moon is occurring in the same year as the 50th anniversary of the historic 1969 mission of Armstrong and Aldrin. Like the Apollo 11 mission, the SpaceIL one will also be leaving behind a time capsule on the moon.
Meanwhile, scientists like Loeb – who has made international headlines recently for his quest to find aliens – are thinking more about existential issues. "It is important to keep in mind that nothing done by humans really matters in the big scheme of the universe," he said. "Humans have access to an extremely limited fraction of the cosmic reservoirs of energy and mass, and to potential places for life; there are 1020 habitable Earth-like planets in the observable volume of the universe, so the human imprint on the cosmic stage is destined to remain negligible."
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