Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Conversation: Saving Space Junk Volume 60 Number 6, November/December 2007

Alice Gorman wants to take archaeology into orbit.

(Courtesy Dean Mullen)

The U.S. Navy launched Vanguard 1 in March 1958. The cantaloupe-sized sphere was the fourth man-made object in space and is the oldest still in orbit--it has been around earth nearly 200,000 times. Is it "space junk"? Alice Gorman, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia, studies this material and wants it considered part of our shared heritage. ARCHAEOLOGY editor Samir S. Patel spoke with Gorman about archaeology in orbit, space as a cultural landscape, and astronaut poop.

What's up there in orbit?
There are more than 10,000 pieces of manufactured material in orbit, and 4 percent are operating spacecraft. The rest, if we're using archaeological terms, are artifacts, including whole spacecraft and satellites.

Is it significant as archaeology?
There are some things anybody would agree are significant. Vanguard 1--one of my favorites--is the oldest artifact in orbit. It comes back to that basic thing in archaeology that the objects themselves have a significance not captured by written material. It's difficult this early on to get a sense of what kinds of questions people are going to want to ask of the orbital record, but early telecommunications satellites, for example, are the artifacts that created the modern world.

What can we learn from this material? Would we eventually want to return it to earth?
From earth, we can learn about how things break up and move around in orbit, and when we eventually access these items in space, we can learn how they interact with the space environment. We can see a Vanguard--a few museums have prototypes--but there's only one up there. It has been up for 50 years and will be able to tell us about long-term exposure to the space environment. Nothing else can give us that information. In terms of managing it as cultural heritage, I think it should be left up there. I argue this is a cultural landscape and removing parts of it will destroy the relationships within it.

Doesn't "space junk" pose risks to current satellites and missions?
At the moment, the space industry wants to clean up "space junk," but that's a while off. For now, to manage this material as heritage, we don't have to do anything. If NASA or the European Space Agency is going to remove material from orbit, they're going to have to design methods that don't affect operational spacecraft. It's not going to be costly to avoid historically significant ones as well. We just have to make them aware of the objects' heritage value.

How do we decide what is worth preserving?
There's a range of discriminating factors, and the easiest approach to begin with is to select representative objects. We should keep spacecraft that are unique, or ones that represent a nation. Indonesia sent up a few satellites early on, and they're quite rare. Satellites that represent major leaps in technology are also notable, like the first geosynchronous satellite. You once wrote that organic matter--human waste in orbit--might also be interesting.

One account noted the Mir space station was surrounded by a halo of yellow icy particles, so we know there's a lot of human waste up there. It is exposed to a hell of a lot of radiation. Nobody's stayed out in space that long, so if we were to sample the solid material, we'd learn about how cosmic radiation affects organic molecules. This also has implications for the panspermia theory that there's life lurking all over.

What kinds of reactions do you get to your ideas?
They're kind of interdisciplinary, so it's hard for people to fit them into a little box. But I tend to get fairly positive reactions from the public because they think the ideas are just too weird. In the archaeological community people are pretty interested, but when I talk to space people, they're initially quite puzzled.

Will people get into space-based archaeological tourism?
Definitely. When people go into space as tourists, first they'll want to experience microgravity and take photographs. Later they'll want to play sports and have sex. Eventually, they'll want to do what tourists everywhere do--check out historic stuff and take souvenirs home.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America