The Chandrayaan-3 moon landing is part of a new lunar space race

On Wednesday, India became the fourth country to successfully land a craft on the moon, when its Chandrayaan-3 mission delivered two robots, a rover and a lander, to the moon’s southern polar region. It’s a location where no craft has ever successfully landed before due to the area’s boulder-ridden surface.

This news might give you a sense of déjà vu. The accomplishment arrives on the heels of an ill-fated attempt to achieve the same feat by a Russian lander, Luna-25, which crashed into the lunar surface earlier this week.

The two missions are part of a new moon race. In recent years, government space agencies, nonprofits, and companies from Russia, India, Israel, and Japan have attempted (and failed) to land crafts on the southern part of the moon. The US and China also have future missions planned.

These countries and entities are interested in exploring the moon for scientific purposes, but also potentially industrial or commercial ones, as there are resources on the moon that could be useful on Earth, or provide materials to make space travel deeper into the solar system more feasible.

But with the new space race comes a potential consequence: The surface of the moon could start to get littered with our junk.

The remnants of the unsuccessful Luna-25 mission will forever rest on the windless surface of the moon. And they are not alone. Humans have been leaving objects on the moon since 1969, when the Soviet Luna 2 became the first human-made object to come in contact with the moon when it intentionally crashed there. Since then, over 50 rocket boosters have collided with the moon.

Outside the dozens of boosters, space missions have left behind two golf balls, a dozen boots, a feather from the Air Force Academy’s falcon mascot, nearly a hundred bags of urine, feces, and vomit, and a range of other distinctly human artifacts.

Overall, the moon serves as a dumping ground for 400,000 pounds of human-made material, and a few dozen rockets, satellites, and mission-related debris orbit the space between Earth and the moon. Even successful missions leave behind debris, and eventually, the moon could be a graveyard for robotic explorers when they stop functioning.

With the renewed interest in the moon, it’s likely the junk in this space near and on the moon will continue to accumulate, especially given there isn’t any meaningful effort to remove it. Retrieving such debris would mean sending another craft to the moon, an act that costs tens of millions of dollars, and also risks adding more to the junk pile.

The moon has been a pristine time capsule. Its surface has helped us answer many of our questions about the solar system. That “pristine” state could be irrevocably changed.

It’s not a stretch to now wonder: In time, will the surface of the moon become something of a junkyard of failed missions, broken robots, and scraps? And will the orbit around it become littered with debris, making the night sky less discernible by the naked eye and astronomers’ telescopes alike?

We once viewed the ocean as a vast, resilient place, Aparna Venkatesan, a cosmologist at the University of San Francisco, told Vox. Yet today the sea is littered with microplastics. Without regulation, space, like the ocean, won’t remain unblemished for long.

“We’re probably not at a point right now where there’s a risk of irreversibly changing the lunar environment,” said Parvathy Prem, a planetary scientist with the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “But that point in time might be closer than we think.”

Why are so many countries investing in lunar missions?

A desire for political and technological superiority guided the first space race of the mid-1900s, but today, far more tangible reasons spur competition to the moon.

The area within Earth’s orbit including the moon’s surface is a “potential treasure trove” of scientific discovery, said Uma Bruegman, the lead of the Space Safety Institute at the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit corporation that advises space missions. The lunar surface offers “access to resources like water, helium-3, and rare earth materials,” she added. “There’s a lot of excitement thinking about what the potential there is.” Helium-3, for instance, can fuel nuclear fusion reactors.

But most notably, the moon’s southern pole contains water, in the form of ice. A lot of ice: A previous Indian lunar mission estimated the moon is home to 1.3 trillion pounds of water ice. Researchers first discovered and confirmed the presence of this ice in 2008 and 2009, and since then countries have been trying and failing to gain access to the southern polar region. India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission (launched a couple of weeks before Russia’s Luna-25) was the first to do so when it landed successfully early Wednesday.

All this ice could change human space exploration. It, along with other resources, could be transformed into breathable air, drinkable water, or even fuel propellant. Mining these resources opens the doors to building a lunar station or refueling for longer trips deeper into our solar system.

But there are also scientific prizes here. This ice could help researchers learn about the early days of our solar system and the origins of both the moon and Earth.

“The moon is really Earth’s oldest neighbor. We’ve had a moon almost as long as there’s been an Earth,” Prem said. “One of the interesting consequences of that is that everything that the Earth has experienced, in terms of interactions with the rest of the space environment, the moon has also experienced.”

But there’s one big difference with the moon: Unlike Earth, it preserves its history.

The atmosphere, water, wind, and plate tectonics that shaped our modern Earth also in some ways erased our ancient geological origins, she added. But by observing the craters and identifying the compounds found on the moon, humans could learn more about our world’s cosmic history.

The stuff we’re leaving behind

So, exploring the moon has exciting prizes for humanity. But we’ve made quite a mess in the pursuit of it.

In 2022, a piece of human-made debris struck the moon unintentionally for the first time, when a booster from the Chinese spacecraft Chang 5-T1 (which launched on a moon mission and returned to Earth in 2014) hit the celestial body. A few years prior, an Israeli craft, which would have been the first private craft to land on the moon, crash-landed. The mission brought with it a “library” of human knowledge with various artifacts from Earth. This included thousands of tardigrades, or microscopic “water bears” that scientists predict could survive the apocalypse or even space.

While neither of these collisions caused any immediate harm, they do raise concerns about human interference on the moon.

“Surface debris, in addition to other kinds of alterations or disruptions to the space environment resulting from human activities, could in some cases compromise our ability to scientifically study those environments,” JS Johnson-Schwartz, a professor of philosophy at Wichita State University, and the author of The Value of Science in Space Exploration, told Vox in an email.

Given the moon holds clues to “our shared solar system history,” learning how to study and protect it is vital to continued scientific discovery, Venkatesan added.

And it’s not just the surface of the moon we have to worry about. There’s also the risk of junk accumulating in orbit around it. “Debris left in orbit, whether around the Earth or Moon, increases the risk of collisions in space, which in turn might produce more debris, leading to further collisions, and so forth,” said Johnson-Schwartz. Scientists call this accumulation of debris “Kessler syndrome” and it could make traveling to the moon more and more difficult. Debris in this space can last for hundreds or thousands of years.

”The moon is the one uniting vision for all of us,” said Bruegman. “You can be anywhere on Earth and look up and see the moon in the sky,” She says it’s critical that “we remain coordinated and vigilant about traffic and debris we are introducing there.”

Currently, there is not much junk orbiting the moon itself, said Prem, but that could change quickly and drastically.

Should it be cleaned up?

No country owns the moon or even part of it. In fact, no country can. In 1967 the UN formed the Outer Space Treaty, and despite its lack of enforceability, it prohibits any state from claiming sovereignty of the moon and other celestial bodies.

While this protects the moon from being claimed by one entity, it also means there is not any one body responsible for keeping it pristine. Still, efforts to make the moon’s upkeep a global responsibility have been underway for decades.

The Outer Space Treaty holds states liable for identifiable property damage to other entities’ rovers or technology, but its guidelines around cislunar debris are not strong enough, many argue.

The first principle of the Treaty — that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States” — does imply that space must be kept clear enough for continued exploration, but it does not explicitly state that means cleaning up after yourself. “There is an understanding, at least, that the country that makes a mess should clean it up or pay for the consequences from that,” said Venkatesan. Nonetheless, it’s an unenforceable understanding.

In 2011, NASA issued “Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts,” which (in light of increased commercial interest in space) provided guidelines on how to preserve the Apollo 11 landing site. A few years later a Democrat-backed bill, HR 2617, sought to establish the Apollo Lunar Landing Sites National Historic Park. The park would protect objects left behind by the landing and protect the site from mining. It also aimed to make the area a United Nations World Heritage Site. The bill was not voted on and died in Congress.

More recently, in 2020, the Artemis Accords — an American-led effort to bring people to the moon once more by 2025 — included provisions regulating debris. The accords propose the peaceful use of space by member nations (of which there are 28 thus far), said Bruegman. “Within these accords, there is a plan for the mitigation of orbital debris, including the safe and timely disposal of spacecrafts and the end of their mission,” she added.

The accords do not provide a detailed account of how they will achieve this, but do state that signatories will “commit to limit, to the extent practicable, the generation of new, long-lived harmful debris released through normal operations, break-up in operational or post-mission phases, and accidents and conjunctions.”

Keeping the moon a common ground for all humanity seems critical in keeping it pristine. If one country does try to claim part of the moon, and therefore alter its surface irreparably and without oversight, it opens the floodgates for others to do the same — creating a battle for lunar property. NASA administrator Bill Nelson warned of this earlier this year when he compared the Chinese government’s race to space with their island claims in the South China Sea. “Naturally, I don’t want China to get to the south pole first with humans and then say ‘This is ours, stay out’,” he said.

The truth is, there’s not that much area to claim. The moon’s surface area is smaller than the continent of Asia, and an even smaller portion of that is flat enough to land on, said Bruegman. With over 100 planned lunar landings in the next decade, this small area could get congested fast, she added.

“We need a global approach. Everybody needs to work together,” said Bruegman. “We need good policies, good collaboration, and global agreements to maintain and sustain the moon’s environment.”