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Please Leave the Moon the Way You Found It, NASA Urges

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After only 41 years of small steps for men, the moon is apparently ready for historic landmark designation. NASA, gearing up for an expected influx of the galaxy's bridge-and-tunnel crowd, has made arrangements with the X Prize Foundation to keep private explorers from trampling historic moon landing areas.

Ordinarily, the odds of such a disruption would be fairly slim, but the competition, which closes in 2015, will likely draw larger-than-normal numbers of onlookers to the moon. That these onlookers will be the lunar equivalent of RC vehicles makes it all the more challenging.

The Google (GOOG) Lunar X Prize competition involves 26 teams, each hoping to be the first non-government-funded group to send a bot to the moon. The X Prize Foundation is offering a total of $30 million to the winners. The top prize of $20 million goes to the first team to land, ride at least 500 meters in a lunar rover, and send back HD photos and video.

The danger of having historic sites disturbed comes from the other part of the competition, which encourages teams to try for extra money by having their vehicles snap pics of the old Apollo, Survivor, or Lunar Heritage sites. For every government-funded landing on the moon between now and the end of competition, the prize money shrinks, giving privately funded space travelers still more incentive for speed.

It's exactly the eagerness with which explorers will have their proxies rush in to photograph these sites that worries NASA. The agency drew up a 93-page document highlighting ways moon daytrippers can leave no trace behind.

NASA notes that no one has been near the historic landing sites since the last mission in 1972, "leaving them in pristine condition and undisturbed by artificial processes.” Adding, “It is anticipated that future spacecraft will have the technology and their operators will have the interest to visit these sites in the coming years. These visits could impose significant disturbance risks to these sites, thus potentially destroying irreplaceable historic, scientific and educational artifacts and materials."
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