space archaeology

‘And warm with human love the chill of space’: the archaeologist in orbit

As a child growing up on a wheat and sheep farm in southern New South Wales, I was obsessed with stars. The only other lights visible at night came from inside our own house. I’d go outside and look up at the Milky Way and wonder how the universe came to be. How to attain those other worlds? Why did we not have the technology to go and visit them? I longed desperately for the future.

The Milky Way seen from the Southern Hemisphere

The Milky Way seen from the Southern Hemisphere

And yet, the past was equally fascinating. Around me, on our property, were the traces of a multi-layered occupation: Aboriginal grinding stones used as doorstops, trees with canoe scars standing in the middle of sheep pasture, abandoned wells dug by Chinese labourers, the farm machinery ‘graveyard’, the old pise (rammed earth) homestead now dissolving slowly back into the soil. Only in later years have some of the old farmers quietly mentioned to me the Aboriginal burials found in the sandhills, such well-drained soil for growing crops.

In a long, circuitous journey, these two parts of my life came back together when I decided to apply archaeological principles to the stuff that humans have sent beyond the Earth: the stuff we now call space junk.

Earth orbit is more than just far away, it’s like the land (or space) that time forgot. While on Earth we were becoming aware of the pollution caused by modern industry and the impacts of mass production and mass garbage disposal, spacefaring nations kept on merrily flinging stuff up into the sky where it would last for thousands of years.

In this cosmic rubbish heap were things that caught my imagination. I’d never really thought about what satellites looked like, or their individual histories. I suppose I’d never thought about them at all. Probably most people don’t: when they hear the term ‘space junk’, they might imagine something like a scrap yard, only floating:

A steel scrap yard in the USA

A steel scrap yard in the USA

But, you may say, why should this be archaeology and not history? Haven’t we got an abundant documentary record to tell us all about these spacecraft and their stories? Not, as it turns out. The documentary record is far from perfect, and even if it were, it doesn’t necessarily contain the answers to the questions we want to ask. Within a system of production, there are ideas and assumptions that are unquestioned and invisible: no-one writes about them, or records them, because they are the fabric of their worldview. It’s only later that we may look back and wonder why something was like that. So there may be no words or images that document a decision; there may only be the thing itself. And this is what makes it archaeology.

For the moment, I have to use documents and pictures that record the iconic early spacecraft as if they were the pottery sherds, and use them to reconstruct the rest of the story: the worldview that made a spacecraft look like THIS and not THAT. I have to think about what they meant back then, and what they mean now. And what they mean individually, and what they mean as an assemblage. For the latter, my tools are also tracking data, simulations and visualisations, like this one created by the European Space Agency.

Space junk in Earth orbit

Space junk in Earth orbit

This is, hopefully, a ‘before’ shot that we’ll look back on in 50 years in both wonder and disgust. The ‘after’ shot should look very different. Sparser. More evenly distributed, perhaps. It may include high densities at Lagrange points, places where the gravitational forces created by the Earth, Moon and Sun are equally balanced. These may be our space museums of the future, where we can park space junk safely out of the way and know that it will stay put.

The kind of spacecraft we might want to keep, for a whole range of reasons, might be one like the TRAAC satellite, launched in 1961 by the USA. The satellite collected data about the Starfish Prime Low Earth Orbit nuclear test, which detonated some 600 km below it in 1962, taking out its solar panels. TRAAC is part of the evidence of Cold War nuclear weapons testing, at a time when space was up for grabs: the UN Outer Space Treaty, which establishes space as a global commons to be used for peaceful purposes, was only accepted by the General Assembly in 1967. So TRAAC represents a vision of space very different to how we conceive it now.

Transit Research and Attitude Control (TRAAC)

Transit Research and Attitude Control (TRAAC)

The thing I really love about TRAAC is that it carried the first poem into space, inscribed on one of its instrument panels. The poem was written by Thomas G. Bergin of Yale, and is both uplifting and slightly sinister, as it views human spacecraft as weapons against the gods, who have until now had us at their mercy:

From Time’s obscure beginning, the Olympians
Have, moved by pity, anger, sometimes mirth,
Poured an abundant store of missiles down
On the resigned, defenceless sons of Earth.
Hailstones and chiding thunderclaps of Jove,
Remote directives from the constellations:
Aye, the celestials have swooped down themselves,
Grim bent on miracles or incarnations.
Earth and her offspring patiently endured,
(Having no choice) and as the years rolled by
In trial and toil prepared their counterstroke—
And now ’tis man [sic] who dares assault the sky.
Fear not, Immortals, we forgive your faults,
And as we come to claim our promised place
Aim only to repay the good you gave
And warm with human love the chill of space.

But in the last stanza, the bellicose nature of the assault weapon is turned on its head with a new vision of space. The point, for me, about this poem, is that it exists as a physical inscription, part of the fabric of the spacecraft, and its presence in space was felt to be important at the time. It’s the start of a long tradition of incorporating an element of flesh-and-blood humanity into robotic spacecraft, either as messages to those beyond us in space or to those of us who remain here on Earth.

We don’t need to destroy everything currently classed as space junk, effectively over 95% of all the stuff up there, to reduce the risks of collisions from orbital debris. We can do it in a smart way by thinking through all the heritage and environmental issues. We should stop thinking of space as a black Cartesian vacuum that is unaltered by us putting things into it, or even taking them out again. After all, we stopped thinking this way about the Earth quite some time ago. If space agencies and corporations continue to apply a 1960s approach to the space environment, it doesn’t oblige everyone else to. In the 21st century, it’s junk like TRAAC that perhaps we want to keep, for what the physical body of the spacecraft can tell us, both about nuclear war in space, and the hopes and aspirations of those who sent it up.

I’m Dr Space Junk, and on this Day of Archaeology, I’m going outside to look at the stars.