Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Celestial sigils

My esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis is having a Game of Thrones party for her (ahem) 30th birthday, in a few weeks. Great preparations are being made. These include sigils for every guest, using a generator found online. Of course mine has to have a space theme, easier said than done. Here are my two most successful drafts so far. I can't decide which direction to go in, so there may be some more experimentation.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Aloha avatar: space archaeology in Hawai'i

The last few months have brought many things, some anticipated, and some entirely unexpected.

In early April I went to the Society for American Archaeology conference in Honolulu, where my excellent colleagues Dr Beth Laura O'Leary and Lisa Westwood had organised a space archaeology session. Unfortunately, it was on at 8.30 am on the first day of the conference .... but we still had a reasonable turn-out, and a great array of papers, including one from the very dynamic Ann Garrison Darrin, co-editor of the Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology and Heritage. I was very pleased to meet new space colleagues Joe Reynolds and Justin Walsh. Space.com reporter Leonard David, always a big supporter of space archaeology, wrote about the session here.

My contribution was, no surprise, on orbital debris (see abstract below).

Gorman, Alice (Australian Cultural Heritage Management)


Robot Avatars: The Material Culture of Human Activity in Earth Orbit

Since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, more than 7000 rocket launches have delivered payloads into space that now are a critical part of the infrastructure of modern life, particularly in telecommunications and navigation. This paper discusses the broad research questions that can be addressed by investigation of the thousands of satellites, rocket bodies, and pieces of junk currently in Earth orbit. Their materials and design reflect the nature of our social and political interactions with space and adaptations to a new environment, a robotic colonial frontier. Factors that contribute to the character of this material record include microgravity, extreme temperature and radiation conditions, national political and scientific agendas, and technological styles through time and across terrestrial cultures. In other words, what can space junk tell us about contemporary life on Earth? However, unlike terrestrial artifacts, satellites in orbit are barely visible to us and are not designed to interact with human bodies in any way. They may represent the beginnings of a technological trajectory that will transform how human cultures relate to time and space.

The slightly cryptic last sentence alludes to Dyson spheres/swarms and Matrioshka brains - not my usual territory, but it seemed to fit, so I went there.

I loved Honolulu. (Someone said to me before leaving, 'But it's just like the Gold Coast', as if that were a bad thing! I love the Gold Coast too. Tacky has its own aesthetic). Mai Tais and Pina Coladas were $4.00 - what's not to love about that?  In the spirit (ha ha) of this blog, I offer a Mai Tai recipe to drive away the winter blues. Fittingly, Mai Tai is said to be based on the expression 'Maita'i roa ae', which has been translated by some as 'out of this world'.

The ingredients are in imperial measurements 'cos that's how those kooky Americans do things.

1 oz light rum
1 oz dark rum
1/2 oz lime juice
1/2 oz orange curacao
1/2 oz orgeat syrup (I think you can use Amaretto or other almond liqueurs here)
Maraschino cherry for garnish

Put all the ingredients except the dark rum into a cocktail shaker with ice cubes and shake well. Strain into glass with lots of ice and top with the dark rum. Makes 1.

On the last day of the idyll, I went on a road trip around the island of Oa'hu with Jo Smith and Jordan Ralph, in a Mustang convertible. Does it get any better than that? And - joy oh joy - on the edge of the island, we came across a satellite tracking station.

Of course it was a military one, so I knew I'd never get inside, but I did want to take some photos. This was where things started to go awry. I went up to the guard house to ask permission, and upon leaving it, I missed a concrete step and tore my Achilles tendon at both ends. I didn't fall, as there were two bollards that I grabbed for support, but perhaps it would have been better if I had: more bruises and sprains no doubt, but my calf would not have taken the full brunt of it.

Here's the photo, taken by Jordan Ralph. I could barely walk but was determined not to give in.

It's only just occurred to me that I look a little like I'm attempting the hula here. It's more magician's assistant stance really - ta da! Or: here's one I made earlier!
And so began six weeks of crutches, ice, ultrasounds, physio, visits to the surgeon and lots of lying down. I may yet avoid surgery, but two and a bit months later I still can't walk properly and have a way to go yet.

And when I got back to Oz, in mid-April, I had only two weeks left to prepare for my next big adventure: TEDxSydney. Of that, more in another post.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Anthropocene and the ethics of space exploration

Final frontiers

For many advocates of space exploration, the Solar System is the answer to human woes. As we exhaust our terrestrial resources, face overpopulation and stare down the barrel of rising sea levels, moving off-planet holds as many promises as it does challenges.

Already we have left our cultural footprint in the Solar System, from the teeming satellites in Earth orbit and landing sites on the Moon, Mars and Venus, to the Voyager spacecraft at the edge of the Solar System. And access to space is slowly moving out of the hands of national governments with the rise of commercial spaceflight development, and the growth of the space tourism market.

Why is space different?

In general, we don’t think of the space environment in the same way as Earth’s. There are several reasons for this. One is the common perception of space as a black, empty vacuum. Second, unlike Earth, space is practically infinite — beyond our sun there are billions of others just like it, even in our 'unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy'.

Then there is the absence of life, as far as we know — although there is always hope that this might change with further exploration. Until that happens, there is nothing living to suffer from any human activities in space. Effectively, there is no need to consider human impacts on the space environment seriously.

Historically, space has been seen as the very last frontier, ripe for colonial conquest. Just as on Earth, the motivations for colonisation are not just about curiosity, or an 'urge to explore', but about finding new resources to exploit for terrestrial markets. The unstated rationale behind this draws heavily on Western anthropocentric ideas of the mastery of creation — the assumption that the non-human world is there for our use. This instrumental view is still very prevalent in the way the space industry justifies its activities.

It’s also a matter of 'out of sight; out of mind'. When we look outwards from the surface of our planet at night the things that arrest our attention tend to be the stars of deep space. Unless you know what you’re looking for you might not even identify the other planets in our solar system, let alone the human-made satellites and space stations.

Of course it doesn’t help that so few people have actually experienced space itself. And for many of them, the revelation of space was actually one of Earth. The vision of the 'whole Earth' was first seen by the lunar-orbiting Apollo 8 mission in 1968. The image of the blue-and-white planet, a marble-sized splash of colour in the inky blackness, emphasised the fragility of life on Earth, and was responsible for the growth of a global ecological awareness.

In all of this, the intrinsic values of the space environment, in and of itself, have been frequently overlooked. While the need for an environmental ethics of space has long been recognised, there is little evidence that space industry has moved beyond a purely anthropocentric perspective.

The rights of rocks

On Earth, the concept of 'nature' having value in its own right, independent of human use, is no longer problematic. Australian philosopher Val Plumwood has been at the forefront of a movement to break down moral distinctions between humans and nature. Plumwood argues that nature has its own agency or autonomy, and should be reconceived as a co-participant in human endeavour rather than something on which we are dependent.

Whatever we do to nature is a reflection of ourselves – whether here or on other planets. watsonsinelgin/Flickr

In her view, we pay attention to the resources offered by the environment, and the limits they impose on our activities, 'only after disaster has occurred' and then only to “fix things up”. Dependency appears as a source of anxiety or threat, or as a further technological problem to be overcome'.

Never has this statement been more applicable than to the problem of orbital debris or space junk.

Our use of Earth orbit to place the satellites on which we now depend for telecommunications, weather, and navigation has created a seemingly irreversible environmental crisis — space so filled with junk that we are at risk of losing our access to it. Even so, the problem is still framed from an anthropocentric and geocentric perspective: in other words, how it will affect the Earth? The value of this apparently empty space is conceived entirely in terms of human use. Could we argue that it has intrinsic value — and as such is a place towards which we have a moral obligation?

The issue is perhaps clearer when we consider other planets. The view that inanimate celestial bodies have a right to exist undisturbed has been called 'cosmic preservationism'. One of the arguments is that the uniqueness of these planetary landscapes creates intrinsic value. There is no doubt — as human space exploration has repeatedly proven — that each object in space has its own story to tell.

And indeed, we really know so little of the solar system that it is hard to tell what is unique and what is common. However, critics of cosmic preservationism claim it leads to the absurd position of rocks on Mars having rights.

Citizens of the solar system

In order to continue as a space-faring species, and even perhaps to continue to live on Earth, we have to find sustainable ways to use the resources of space to survive. This means water, oxygen and minerals, all of which exist in various quantities spread across planets and asteroids. Already, the technologies and structures we may need to mine the moon and asteroids are being considered.

Our very presence on other celestial bodies, whether in human form or through robot avatars, changes them. They are altered physically, and also conceptually, becoming part of a human cultural landscape in a new way. We cannot land, sample, build colonies or mines and whisk away as if nothing happened — our chemical and mechanical traces are now part of the planet. At this stage of human space exploration such impacts are minimal, and no doubt acceptable. But this won’t always be the case.

Already, the international geological community is heralding the arrival of a new epoch – the Anthropocene. Human impacts on the Earth have reached the scale where they are defining a distinct geological layer. Will we have the same level of impact on the rest of the solar system too?

Perhaps the answer is to take up Plumwood’s challenge and abandon the opposition of nature and culture. This allows an acknowledgement of intrinsic value in the space environment that need not take priority over human interests, but can be managed by a critical assessment of competing interests. An ethic of respect for the wonders of the Solar System of which we are an integral part should not be that hard to achieve.

You can read the rest of the series here.

The Conversation
This article was originally published at The Conversation as part of the Final Frontiers series. Read the original article.


Sunday, March 31, 2013

Artefacts of the future: time travel and time-dependent states

As usual, some of the most prescient and perceptive treatments of the archaeology of the contemporary past are to be found in literature. In The Woman who Died A Lot (Jasper Fforde 2012), an asteroid impact on Earth is predicted for the year 2041. In the passage below, our heroine Thursday Next discusses the likelihood of this event actually occuring, and how archaeological evidence works in the context of time travel.
We were currently at 34 percent likelihood, and this figure was derived from many sources - astronomical observation, computer modelling, level of divine concern, guesswork and archaeology - future archaeology. Artefacts from the future had been found, but dating was contentious as it is difficult to say when something was to be invented or built. Of course, something with a date on it beyond 2041 would be conclusive, but the fossil record  - both forward and back - is sketchy at best and, so far, nothing like that has turned up.
Despite Fforde's confusion of archaeology and palaeontology (*sigh* ... this happens elsewhere in the book also), the difficulty of distinguishing the future from the present, or even the past, on the basis of artefacts, is a point well made.

The present could be seen as a thin ephemeral layer on the surface of the Earth, with probabilities multiplying exponentially both forwards and backwards.  The material remains of future and past, as Fforde notes, are equally fragmentary. Taphonomy works in both directions.

Of course I am thinking about this in the light of my current task, which is to write my presentation for the Society for American Archaeology conference in Honolulu next week. I'm thinking about what we can learn from investigating the totality of orbital debris, not just interesting individual items within it. I've often talked about the value of the cultural landscape of orbital space, and now I'm trying to figure out what it means.

My half-articulated thoughts are about the breakdown of relationships between objects which were once connected (ie part of the same spacecraft, or launched on the same flight) but now, through orbital evolution, appear unrelated. Their original states cannot be retrodicted from their current position, unless they are being actively tracked. So it's about taphonomy, entropy and dynamical systems.

When orbital debris falls to Earth, it's falling into its own future, and our present. The tricky bit is recognition.

Fforde, Jasper 2012 The Woman Who Died a Lot. London: Hodder & Stoughton Papaerback edition 2013, p 180

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Anthropocene in the Solar System

This is my abstract for an upcoming session on the Anthropocene at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Chicago. No, alas, I'm not going to be there in person; I will be presenting in Skype mode. None of the conference registration and travel costs, but none of the conference partying either ......
A characteristic of what many are now calling the Anthropocene era is the redistribution of elements and minerals in patterns recognisable as the result of human interventions. Since 1957, the year Sputnik 1 was launched, approximately 6000 tons of human materials have been injected into Earth orbit, and more is thinly spread in various locations throughout the solar system. Mineral signatures rarely seen beyond the terrestrial sphere are now colonising interplanetary space. Their contribution to the estimated 40 000 tons of material from space that falls to Earth every year, including meteoroids and dust, is increasing. With the predicted acceleration of asteroid and lunar mining, the human impacts on space are likely to grow. However, the idea of the Anthropocene as constituted in an Earth/Space system has barely been explored. In this paper I draw on Nigel Clark’s concept of 'ex-orbitant globality' to situate the Anthropocene in a multi-gravity environment, moving away from the geocentrism that has dominated both archaeological and environmental approaches to understanding what space means.

Clark, Nigel 2002 Ex-orbitant globality. Theory, Culture and Society 22:165-185

Gorman, A.C. 2014 The Anthropocene in the Solar System. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1(1):87-91

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Off-Earth Mining - lunar soil simulants, robots and heritage

Last week I spent a fascinating two days at the University of New South Wales' Off-Earth Mining Forum, organised by the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research. This forum united the twin strands of my professional expertise - cultural heritage management in the mining sector, and space archaeology.

Naturally, I talked about what the heritage issues are for lunar mining, particularly in light of the 2011 NASA guidelines. I argued that terrestrial processes of environmental and cultural heritage management need to be taken seriously in space, but that the lack of a well-developed concept of environment was an obstacle.

The first day, which I wasn't able to attend, was a workshop on lunar soil simulants. For many reasons, lunar regolith doesn't behave like soil or rock on Earth, and of course the use of robotic mining machinery is all dependent on the mechanical and physical properties of the stuff. Excitingly, Associate Professor Leonhard Bernold from UNSW has located an Australian source, and we were all given a vial (I do love a good gimmick).

Some of the jigsaw pieces are already under development: automated mining, water and volatile extraction, construction materials and processes. There are also some big gaps. Who are the investors? Who's buying the products? What about international law and the existing treaties? What about microgravity geology - that's going to be critical in asteroid mining.

One thing most people were clear about: lunar mining wasn't going to look like anything we are used to.

More information is available at the forum's website.