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Apollo 11 site
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin sets up scientific experiments on the surface of the moon during the historic 1969 mission. (NASA Photo / Neil Armstrong)

What’s the best way to preserve the Apollo footprints on the moon, the Face on Mars, or the mysterious “white spots” on the dwarf planet Ceres? A pair of researchers argue that there ought to be an international treaty.

They say the Antarctic Treaty, which sets aside that icy continent and its mineral resources as a natural preserve, could serve as a model for what they call the Exogeoconservation Treaty.

“It is better if we do it ahead of the interest in space rather than after the fact,” Jack Matthews, a geologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, told GeekWire on Sunday.

But an expert on space law said the prospects for such a treaty are dim, particularly in light of rising interest in commercial activities on the moon.

Matthews and his co-author, Sean McMahon, a research fellow at the U.K. Center for Astrobiology in Edinburgh, presented a poster about the concept in Seattle at this week’s annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.

They haven’t yet published their paper on the topic, and haven’t raised the subject with the United Nations or other international organizations. Nevertheless, they say it’s high time to be considering how to protect sites of high scientific, aesthetic, historical and cultural interest.

The 50-year-old Outer Space Treaty already bars the United States and other nations from asserting sovereignty over celestial bodies, but commercial ventures such as Florida-based Moon Express and Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources are focusing on a different issue: making use of outer space resources from the moon and asteroids.

U.S. policymakers are moving forward to clarify the status of property rights in space, but they haven’t yet taken significant steps to ensure that historic areas ranging from the Apollo landing sites to the routes taken by NASA’s Mars rovers are protected.

Back in 2013, a measure to establish an Apollo Lunar Landing Sites National Historical Park on the moon was introduced in Congress. The effort didn’t produce anything but controversy. In the meantime, NASA laid out its own non-binding guidelines for protecting Apollo moon landing sites.

Matthews pointed out that any U.S. legislation wouldn’t apply to other countries. “Without a claim being staked, what is to stop me as a British citizen from going to the moon and destroying the site?” he said.

The proposed Exogeoconservation Treaty would set up an international process for protecting specified areas of celestial bodies, ranging from the Apollo moon sites and Mars rover sites to the Face on Mars and the bright spots in Ceres’ Occator Crater, while leaving the way open for commercial operations at other sites.

“We’re not saying, ‘Don’t touch these objects as a whole,'” Matthews said. “But a representative example needs to be preserved. … Let’s not have blanket rules that cover all of the land mass of the moon. Let’s say, ‘What are the important parts,’ and let’s preserve those.”

A nonprofit organization called For All Moonkind is already pressing for international protection of moon landing sites — including Soviet and Chinese as well as U.S. spacecraft — using the model of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. However, Matthews said a formal treaty would offer greater protection.

Michael Listner, an attorney who is the founder of New Hampshire-based Space Law and Policy Solutions, said any talk of a new outer space treaty is a “non-starter.”

“There is simply no appetite on the part of the United States to enter into a legally binding arrangement, especially one that could forfeit ownership rights in space objects,” Listner told GeekWire via Twitter.

Even if the treaty doesn’t fly, Matthews said it’s important to be thinking about extraterrestrial conservation before the world’s spacefaring nations become fully engaged in a land rush.

“If they do find life on another celestial body, this becomes a million times more important,” he said.

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