Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Japanese lunar heritage and the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity.

Whenever I talk to people about future plans for the Moon, it’s clear that the impacts of mining and other activities on the lunar environment are a major concern. 

An aim of the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity (GEGSLA) is to investigate good environmental management practices on the Moon, drawing on lessons learnt on Earth, but also taking into account the distinct conditions of the Moon in terms of its natural environment, and the legal and policy framework. Part of this is cultural and natural heritage. 

Cultural heritage can be defined as places and objects from the past that communities in the present feel should be passed onto future generations. The study of lunar heritage was pioneered by Professor Beth Laura O’Leary from New Mexico State University more than 20 years ago. The GEGSLA is drawing on the research carried out by a small group of space archaeologists, myself included, over that time. This research includes the nature of heritage values on the Moon, how we would assess them, and what we can do to ensure that they survive. 

There are currently 110 locations with human material from lunar missions since 1959. The majority of them are from the US and Russia, but other nations include India, China, Japan and Israel. These places represent over 60 years of human engagement with the Moon. None of the sites have any protection currently, although there are some objects registered under US state heritage legislation. Managing their heritage values is an important part of sustainable use of the Moon. 

Apollo 11 is the most famous lunar heritage site, but as a lesser-known example I want to talk about Japanese cultural heritage on the Moon. There are three known locations and two unknown ones. 

The HITEN satellite was launched in 1990. It released the Hagoromo orbiter once it arrived at the Moon. HITEN then looped around the Moon and into the Kordylewski dust clouds at the Lagrange points L4 and L5, before being intentionally crashed in the lunar surface in 1993. Hagoromo fell out of lunar orbit eventually, but its final resting place is unknown. 

The HITEN spacecraft with the Hagoromo orbiter attached at the top. Image: NASA

A more substantial mission was Selene, launched from Tanegashima in 2007. This was composed of three orbiters: the main one nicknamed Kayuga after a lunar princess from folklore, and two smaller satellites called Okina and Ouna. Okina was a relay satellite, and both Okina and Ouna were used as a Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) to measure lunar gravity. Kayuga was intentionally crashed into the Moon’s surface in 2009. Okina fell out of orbit and crashed also in 2009; but there is no accessible information on the fate of Ouna, so this is another unknown location. 

Kaguya the Moon Princes. Watercolour by Charu.

The archaeological sites are composed of the spacecraft – presumably crushed and damaged from impact, and the impact craters. A scientific question we can ask of locations like this is how the impact craters formed by human artefact crashes differ from those caused by natural meteorites. These places have cultural significance for Japan, but also, given that lunar material is dominated by the US and Russia, they are uncommon examples of another nation’s lunar endeavours and represent the development of Japanese space technology. 

GEGSLA is establishing principles and procedures to manage the heritage values of these places. This involves defining the values and working out management options that can be integrated in a practical way with the needs of surface operators. These build on the existing NASA heritage guidelines from 2011, which set up buffer zones to protect sites from damaging dust abrasion. There’ll also be procedures for sampling the sites for scientific study, so that we can better understand the impacts of the lunar environment on human materials. You can read the Recommended Framework and Key Elements for Peaceful and Sustainable Lunar Activities here, and the Sustainable Management of Lunar Natural and Cultural Heritage here

These principles can be extended to heritage sites wherever humans have left behind material culture across the solar system. This is important because it ensures the sites are retained for future scientific study, and maintains the attachments that different communities feel towards these places, so that the Moon really is for all humanity, not just those that can afford to go there.

This post is adapted from a talk given at an Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum side event organised by the GEGSLA in 2021.