Scientists Declare the Advent of a New Epoch in the Lunar Calendar

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For thousands of years, the moon was a distant inspiration to humanity, its glow casting a sense of wonder from over 200,000 miles (321,868 kilometers) away. But on September 13, 1959, the former Soviet Union’s uncrewed Luna 2 spacecraft changed all that by becoming the first man-made object to touch down on the lunar surface. This historic moment marked the beginning of human exploration on the moon, creating a crater between the lunar regions of Mare Imbrium and Mare Serenitatis, according to NASA.

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While many see this as the start of the space age, some scientists now suggest it also signified the beginning of a new geological epoch, dubbed the “Lunar Anthropocene.” In a comment paper published in Nature Geoscience, researchers proposed that the impact of human activity on the moon, starting with Luna 2, marks a significant shift. The paper’s lead author, Justin Holcomb, a postdoctoral researcher at the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas, said, “The idea is much the same as the discussion of the Anthropocene on Earth—the exploration of how much humans have impacted our planet.”

Holcomb and his colleagues draw parallels between Earth’s Anthropocene—a time period in which human activity has significantly altered the planet’s geology—and the changes occurring on the moon due to human exploration. While Earth’s Anthropocene is still a topic of debate among scientists, the paper’s authors believe the Lunar Anthropocene is already in full swing, with humanity leaving an indelible mark on the moon’s surface.

Since Luna 2, over 100 spacecraft have made landings or crashed onto the moon, with many causing disturbances and creating craters. Human exploration also brought an array of objects to the lunar surface, from scientific instruments and spacecraft components to flags, photographs, golf balls, and even bags of human waste. The Cold War space race spurred many of these missions, with NASA’s Apollo missions sending humans to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

Despite the significant human presence, the moon seems unchanged from Earth, lacking an atmosphere to protect it from meteoroid impacts. But as more nations and private companies plan to return to the moon, the paper’s authors argue that the lunar landscape will undergo even more drastic changes.

Holcomb suggests that future missions should adopt a “Leave No Trace” philosophy to minimize human impact on the lunar environment. He points out that human activities like landing spacecraft, driving rovers, and walking on the moon’s surface can disturb its delicate regolith (the moon’s soil). The paper emphasizes the importance of preserving the lunar environment and calls for measures to protect the moon’s exosphere, composed of dust and gas, and its ice-filled craters.

With a new wave of lunar exploration on the horizon, driven by NASA’s Artemis program and other countries’ ambitions to land on the moon, the Lunar Anthropocene’s impact could grow exponentially. Researchers hope the idea of a Lunar Anthropocene will prompt discussions about the long-term consequences of human activities on the moon and lead to more sustainable practices in space exploration.

Humanity’s footprints on the moon, left by Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969, have become iconic symbols of our journey beyond Earth. Holcomb concludes, “As archaeologists, we perceive footprints on the moon as an extension of humanity’s journey out of Africa—a significant step in our species’ history.” As the story of lunar exploration continues, the question remains: How do we balance the drive to explore with the responsibility to preserve our celestial heritage?

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