The amount of so-called “trash” on the moon might be more staggering than you think. Although objects such as an American flag, a hammer, a falcon feather, and others don’t sound like much in terms of weight, there are also multiple orbiters that remain stuck on the moon after the completion of the respective missions they were involved in.
According to a report from Live Science, publicly available information suggests that there is more than 400,000 pounds (181,000 kilograms) worth of junk, or trash on the moon. This is a figure that NASA chief historian William Barry believes to be quite accurate due to the presence of five moon rangers and other “heavy artifacts.” As he explained, most of the items on the moon were left behind by NASA’s Apollo astronauts, as the iconic space program launched multiple moon missions between 1969 and 1972, which included their share of science experiments.
Barry also explained that aside from the objects from the Apollo missions, the moon’s litter is also made up of orbiters and other equipment from crewless missions launched by space agencies from around the world; aside from NASA and the European Space Agency, these include organizations from Russia, India, and Japan. Live Science wrote that these orbiters mapped the moon’s terrain before ultimately crash-landing, essentially adding to the pre-existing litter.
Furthermore, Barry noted that many of the older, heavier objects are lunar probes that were launched to the moon so that scientists could determine the plausibility of further exploring the lunar surface. These included probes that were sent out in the 1960s, as scientists expected the moon to have quicksand-like terrain due to all the space rocks that had crashed into the moon in its 4.5-billion-year history. As these probes remained on the moon, that dispelled the old myths and assured scientists that it is possible for other forms of equipment to land on the surface.
— SPACE.com (@SPACEdotcom) March 4, 2018
Speaking to Live Science, Barry explained why the Apollo astronauts chose to leave so much trash behind on the moon, stressing that this would have taken a toll on whatever resources were available at that time.
“On any engineering project, like landing on the moon, you design the mission to do what you need it to do and not a whole lot more. The real concern was: Can we get the crew safely to the moon, can they get the samples they need and can we get them back in one piece?”
At the time of the Atlantic’s 2012 report on the matter, there were more than 70 vehicles that remained stranded or wrecked on the lunar surface, with the rest of the trash on the moon made up of “smaller pieces of detritus,” meaning items that were discarded after they were no longer useful. These included over 100 items left by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Sea of Tranquility, including the historic plaque that was left behind to confirm that the NASA astronauts “came in peace for all mankind.”