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Lunar Anthropocene: How humans have permanently changed the moon

The moon has entered into a new phase of existence due to human influence. In a new study from the University of Kansas, experts say that it is time to recognize a new epoch on the moon: the Lunar Anthropocene.

This proposal is rooted in the first human-induced disturbance on the moon on September 13, 1959, when the USSR’s Luna 2 mission made contact with the lunar surface. 

Since then, the moon has been host to over 100 spacecraft, including the famed Apollo Lunar Modules. These visits have left indelible marks on the moon, altering its landscape in ways previously unimagined.

Lunar Anthropocene 

“The idea is much the same as the discussion of the Anthropocene on Earth – the exploration of how much humans have impacted our planet,” said study lead author Justin Holcomb, a postdoctoral researcher with the Kansas Geological Survey at KU. 

“The consensus is on Earth the Anthropocene began at some point in the past, whether hundreds of thousands of years ago or in the 1950s. Similarly, on the moon, we argue the Lunar Anthropocene already has commenced, but we want to prevent massive damage or a delay of its recognition until we can measure a significant lunar halo caused by human activities, which would be too late.”

Collaborating with Professor Rolfe Mandel and Professor Karl Wegmann at North Carolina State University, Holcomb emphasizes that the lunar landscape is no longer a static, untouched entity. 

“Cultural processes are starting to outstrip the natural background of geological processes on the moon,” said Holcomb. “These processes involve moving sediments, which we refer to as ‘regolith,’ on the moon.”

Initiating discussions 

“Typically, these processes include meteoroid impacts and mass movement events, among others. However, when we consider the impact of rovers, landers and human movement, they significantly disturb the regolith. In the context of the new space race, the lunar landscape will be entirely different in 50 years.” 

“Multiple countries will be present, leading to numerous challenges. Our goal is to dispel the lunar-static myth and emphasize the importance of our impact, not only in the past but ongoing and in the future. We aim to initiate discussions about our impact on the lunar surface before it’s too late.”

Delicate exosphere 

“We know that while the Moon does not have an atmosphere or magnetosphere, it does have a delicate exosphere composed of dust and gas, as well as ice inside permanently shadowed areas, and both are susceptible to exhaust gas propagation,” wrote the study authors. “Future missions must consider mitigating deleterious effects on lunar environments.”

While Holcomb and his colleagues want to use the Lunar Anthropocene to highlight the potential for humanity’s potential negative environmental impact to the moon, they also hope to call attention to the vulnerability of lunar sites with historical and anthropological value, which currently have no legal or policy protections against disturbance.

Lunar Anthropocene artifacts

The team’s concern extends to the remnants of human missions on the moon, ranging from scientific equipment to more unconventional items like golf balls and religious texts. These artifacts, they argue, are not merely litter but constitute a unique archaeological record of human presence in space. 

“A recurring theme in our work is the significance of lunar material and footprints on the moon as valuable resources, akin to an archaeological record that we’re committed to preserving,” said Holcomb. 

“The concept of a Lunar Anthropocene aims to raise awareness and contemplation regarding our impact on the lunar surface, as well as our influence on the preservation of historical artifacts.”

Space heritage movement

Holcomb said this field of “space heritage” would aim to preserve or catalog items such as rovers, flags, golf balls and footprints on the moon’s surface.

“As archaeologists, we perceive footprints on the moon as an extension of humanity’s journey out of Africa, a pivotal milestone in our species’ existence.”

“These imprints are intertwined with the overarching narrative of evolution. It’s within this framework we seek to capture the interest of not only planetary scientists but also archaeologists and anthropologists who may not typically engage in discussions about planetary science.”

More about the moon

The moon, Earth’s only natural satellite, presents a fascinating subject for exploration and study. Radiating a ghostly glow in our night sky, it has captivated human imagination for millennia.

Formed about 4.5 billion years ago, the moon likely resulted from a colossal impact between Earth and a Mars-sized body. This dramatic event spewed material into orbit, which eventually coalesced into the moon we see today. Orbiting Earth at an average distance of about 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers), it completes a revolution approximately every 27.3 days.


The moon’s surface, characterized by its distinctive craters, mountains, and ‘seas’ (or maria), tells a story of ancient violence. These features formed primarily due to meteorite impacts and volcanic activity. The most notable feature, the Tycho crater, with its prominent ray system, serves as a testament to these violent impacts.

Unlike Earth, the moon lacks an atmosphere, leading to extreme temperature variations. Its surface experiences scorching heat exceeding 250°F (121°C) during the day and plunging to below -250°F (-157°C) at night. This lack of atmosphere also means the moon provides no sky or weather changes, offering a constant view of the universe.

The moon’s gravitational pull plays a crucial role in Earth’s life. It stabilizes our planet’s axial tilt, influencing climate and seasons. More visibly, it drives the tides, rhythmically raising and lowering our oceans.

Exploration and Lunar Anthropocene

NASA’s Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972 marked a significant milestone in lunar exploration, with Apollo 11 being the first to land humans on the moon. These missions brought back lunar rocks for study and deepened our understanding of the moon’s geology and history. However, as discussed above, they also left indelible marks, changing it forever and prompting the Lunar Anthropocene epoch.

Currently, the moon remains a key focus for space exploration. Plans for further manned missions, lunar bases, and even mining operations are in the works. These endeavors aim to unlock the moon’s potential as a stepping stone for deeper space exploration, possibly even serving as a gateway for missions to Mars and beyond.

In essence, the moon is more than just a celestial body orbiting Earth. It’s a historical archive of our solar system, a catalyst for Earth’s stability, and a gateway to the wider cosmos. Its silent presence in the night sky continues to inspire and challenge us, beckoning future explorers to uncover its secrets.

The study is published in the journal Nature Geoscience.


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