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Lunar artifacts: What goes up may not come down

By Brian Palmer

Special To The Washington Post

Hundreds of man-made objects are kicking around on the lunar surface, left by astronauts from several different countries. The urine collection assemblies and bodily waste devices worn by astronauts might not tempt you as souvenirs, but there's plenty of other stuff up there -- earplugs, boots, a gold olive branch, a family photo -- to interest a treasure hunter of the future. My personal favorite is listed in NASA inventories as "Golf balls (2)."

In 1971, astronaut Alan Shepard screwed a modified Wilson 6-iron head onto the shaft of a device designed to take lunar soil samples. He placed two golf balls on the moon's surface and swung away. I've always wondered what chance a space tourist might have of finding one of those balls.

Shepard claimed they traveled "miles and miles and miles," but a video taken at the time suggests he caught the balls a little fat. (That's golfer lingo for hitting the ground before the ball.) The swing wasn't a fair reflection of Shepard's terrestrial golf game: Moving in the low-gravity lunar environment is awkward, and spacesuits of the time were stiff.

According to Bill Barry, NASA's chief historian, we have a pretty good idea of where the balls landed, even if our satellite imagery lacks the resolution to pick out a golf ball. Shepard's fellow moonwalker Ed Mitchell was convinced the first ball landed in nearby Javelin Crater. (The crater is named after the solar wind collector staff that Mitchell hurled, Olympian-style, just after Shepard took his golf swings.) Mitchell even took a picture of the area. The javelin is obvious enough, but the golf ball is a little tougher to spot. In interviews after his return to Earth, Shepard claimed that his second shot sailed farther, traveling nearly 200 yards before landing near a set of scientific instruments for measuring natural phenomena on the moon.

Knowing where the balls landed in 1971 is a good start, but is there any chance they've moved in the past 42 years?

"It's very likely that they have moved barely microns," says Arlin Crotts, a professor of astronomy at Columbia University and the author of a forthcoming book, "The New Moon: Water, Exploration, and Future Habitation." "There are no winds to speak of on the moon. The entire mass of the lunar atmosphere is about 20 tons, the equivalent of the weight of air in a modern-size office building."

Since that air is spread out over the surface of the moon, there simply isn't enough movement of particles to displace a golf ball. According to Crotts, there is a 99 percent chance the balls are almost exactly where they landed.

Now we're getting somewhere. Of course, we'd still have to spot the balls. Even on a terrestrial golf course, picking out a golf ball can be tricky. Would the balls stand out against the lunar surface?

"The moon is a fairly dark gray, like a typical office filing cabinet," Crotts says. "It looks brighter than it really is in the night sky because there's nothing else as big and reflective. You could probably see a golf ball on the lunar surface from around 30 feet away."

It would be important to know exactly what you're looking for, though, and the balls' appearance may have changed substantially. The moon lacks an ozone layer to block the harshest wavelengths of light emanating from the sun. The balls' casings are probably cracked and darkened slightly. It's also possible that the balls have been struck by micrometeorites, which are tiny bits of cosmic dust.

Unless your space tourism company is nice enough to land you exactly where the balls are located, you'd need a very detailed map to find them. The surface of the moon is about the same size as that of Africa, so you wouldn't just stumble onto the balls. Landmarks on the lunar surface are less obvious than those on Earth. A compass would also be useless. Although the moon had a strong magnetic field 3 billion years ago, it has virtually disappeared.

"The Apollo 14 astronauts got exhausted and disoriented climbing the side of Cone Crater," notes Crotts, referring to the thousand-foot-wide crater near their landing site. "It was probably the closest anyone came to getting lost on the moon." (Shepard and Mitchell were confused by the angle of the sun and the lunar topography.)

The good news is that the moon's surface is a fine powder. If you were to get lost, you could always retrace your steps to return to the mother ship.

Speculating about lunar souvenirs is good fun, but there's a serious issue to be considered. Last month, "The Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act" was introduced in Congress; it would designate artifacts left by astronauts to be part of the national parks system. Without such legal protections, space tourists might someday loot the historic objects. There are also scientific concerns.

"The Outer Space Treaty [of 1967] says anyone can go anywhere on the moon," Crotts explains. "That's unfortunate, because the items on the moon aren't just archaeological. A Soviet rover on the lunar surface has a laser reflector that [even now] helps us study the moon-Earth gravitational system. It's the best way to test theories of gravity. To move it would be a crime against science."

Despite his hard-line stance on scientific items, I asked Crotts what he would go for if he could take one object from the moon.

"I might go for the biggie: stripping the Apollo 11 plaque that says, 'Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon.' But that might be kind of tacky. I guess I would take a lunar rover. That would be pretty neat."