Carl Sagan Poses with Model of Viking Lander
Carl Sagan Poses with Model of Viking Lander

On Earth, evidence of past human civilization and habitation can be gleaned from the rocks, soil and some still-standing monuments of architecture large and small, but the effects over time of weathering and over longer periods of the geologic cycle tend to erode, erase and eradicate those past efforts.

But as a space-faring culture, we have now left our marks across the solar system on planets, moons, asteroids and in the empty space between them. Some of these “marks” are yet-functioning robotic spacecraft. Some are litter, scattered about the place like so many discarded soda cans, plastic grocery bags, depleted batteries and defunct electronic devices.

Are we trashing our solar system? Well, on the big scale of things, not much — and at present unavoidably. It’s a big solar system and the number of expended rockets, ejected parachutes, crumpled heat shields, empty fuel tanks and just plain expired or lost robots is quite small. And there’s no economically feasible means at present to clean them up. Besides, whose backyard are they littering?

As our surveillance of the reaches of our solar system grows more sophisticated, we are beginning to run across bits of “junk”. Don’t get me wrong, these are once important and highly useful equipment of exploration that we’ve left behind over the years.

Recently, the discerning eye on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (the HiRISE camera) has spotted a couple bits of extra-Terran detritus.

Check this out: the discarded parachute of the Curiosity lander, flapping in the Martian breeze. I wondered where that ended up!

Luna 24, a robotic lunar lander from the 1970s, has been located through images by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. You can search for junk, too, at Moon Zoo.

And how about this Antiques Skyshow find: The possible last resting place of one of the first robots to land on Mars, the Soviet Mars 3 lander?

Some day in the future, when travel about the solar system is a routine vacationing activity, some of the sightseeing historical points of interest may be today’s space junk. I can imagine raised walkways and interpretive signs encircling the dust and wind scoured remains the long lost Beagle II lander on Mars, or the descent module of the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the Moon, or the Huygens lander half sunken in the super-frigid methane muds of Titan or the thoroughly scorched hulk of a Soviet Venera lander on Venus.

And imagine the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft, coasting outward into interstellar space, one day serving as archaeological finds by alien species living in distant star systems, in the distant future, telling them that we are here—at least, were here, anyway.

  • This surely got me thinking! What happen to the remains of the Apollo 13? Or Neil Armstrong spacesuit? It could cost something but i have to believe it’ll probably fall down as a national treasure but who knows that all of those historical space pieces will be available to public auction now that would be a surprise… 😀

  • Mercer

    Apollo 13 was thrown at the moon and Neil Armstrong’s helmet and gloves are on display at the Smithsonian.


Ben Burress

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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