Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Japanese lunar heritage and the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity.

Whenever I talk to people about future plans for the Moon, it’s clear that the impacts of mining and other activities on the lunar environment are a major concern. 

An aim of the Global Expert Group on Sustainable Lunar Activity (GEGSLA) is to investigate good environmental management practices on the Moon, drawing on lessons learnt on Earth, but also taking into account the distinct conditions of the Moon in terms of its natural environment, and the legal and policy framework. Part of this is cultural and natural heritage. 

Cultural heritage can be defined as places and objects from the past that communities in the present feel should be passed onto future generations. The study of lunar heritage was pioneered by Professor Beth Laura O’Leary from New Mexico State University more than 20 years ago. The GEGSLA is drawing on the research carried out by a small group of space archaeologists, myself included, over that time. This research includes the nature of heritage values on the Moon, how we would assess them, and what we can do to ensure that they survive. 

There are currently 110 locations with human material from lunar missions since 1959. The majority of them are from the US and Russia, but other nations include India, China, Japan and Israel. These places represent over 60 years of human engagement with the Moon. None of the sites have any protection currently, although there are some objects registered under US state heritage legislation. Managing their heritage values is an important part of sustainable use of the Moon. 

Apollo 11 is the most famous lunar heritage site, but as a lesser-known example I want to talk about Japanese cultural heritage on the Moon. There are three known locations and two unknown ones. 

The HITEN satellite was launched in 1990. It released the Hagoromo orbiter once it arrived at the Moon. HITEN then looped around the Moon and into the Kordylewski dust clouds at the Lagrange points L4 and L5, before being intentionally crashed in the lunar surface in 1993. Hagoromo fell out of lunar orbit eventually, but its final resting place is unknown. 

The HITEN spacecraft with the Hagoromo orbiter attached at the top. Image: NASA

A more substantial mission was Selene, launched from Tanegashima in 2007. This was composed of three orbiters: the main one nicknamed Kayuga after a lunar princess from folklore, and two smaller satellites called Okina and Ouna. Okina was a relay satellite, and both Okina and Ouna were used as a Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) to measure lunar gravity. Kayuga was intentionally crashed into the Moon’s surface in 2009. Okina fell out of orbit and crashed also in 2009; but there is no accessible information on the fate of Ouna, so this is another unknown location. 

Kaguya the Moon Princes. Watercolour by Charu.

The archaeological sites are composed of the spacecraft – presumably crushed and damaged from impact, and the impact craters. A scientific question we can ask of locations like this is how the impact craters formed by human artefact crashes differ from those caused by natural meteorites. These places have cultural significance for Japan, but also, given that lunar material is dominated by the US and Russia, they are uncommon examples of another nation’s lunar endeavours and represent the development of Japanese space technology. 

GEGSLA is establishing principles and procedures to manage the heritage values of these places. This involves defining the values and working out management options that can be integrated in a practical way with the needs of surface operators. These build on the existing NASA heritage guidelines from 2011, which set up buffer zones to protect sites from damaging dust abrasion. There’ll also be procedures for sampling the sites for scientific study, so that we can better understand the impacts of the lunar environment on human materials. You can read the Recommended Framework and Key Elements for Peaceful and Sustainable Lunar Activities here, and the Sustainable Management of Lunar Natural and Cultural Heritage here

These principles can be extended to heritage sites wherever humans have left behind material culture across the solar system. This is important because it ensures the sites are retained for future scientific study, and maintains the attachments that different communities feel towards these places, so that the Moon really is for all humanity, not just those that can afford to go there.

This post is adapted from a talk given at an Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum side event organised by the GEGSLA in 2021.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Why do we need an archaeology of space?

Why do we need an archaeology of space? Haven’t we got an abundant documentary record to tell us all about 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 most people, archaeology is the study of what is old – from the emergence of humans a few million years ago, to perhaps a couple of thousand or a few hundred years ago. When I tell people I’m an archaeologist, the most common reactions are to express admiration for the great cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, followed by confusion when I say that’s not what I do. (Whatever you do, don’t mention dinosaurs to an archaeologist! For the record, that’s palaeontology). 

It can be even more perplexing to say that you work in Australia. Surely, many people (mainly Australians it has to be said) respond, there’s no archaeology in Australia? This is generally the cue to say ‘but there is at least 65, 000 years of Aboriginal occupation…not to mention over 240 years of European occupation’. Usually that’s enough for a long conversation about archaeology, so often I don’t go on to mention that my field of research is space. It just seems too confusing when you’ve already bombarded an unsuspecting stranger with information.

(Once my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis was asked what she did by a man in a nightclub. ‘I’m a nuclear physicist’ she replied. ‘Why on Earth did you say that?’ I asked her. ‘Isn’t it enough to be an archaeologist?’. ‘It just seemed more interesting’, she said). 

If we get to the point where I reveal I’m a space archaeologist, it’s often assumed that means stuff that has returned to Earth, such as old satellites or even meteorites. I’ll point to the sky and say ‘No, I mean the stuff that’s still up there’. ‘But how can you do that, when you can’t even go there?’. The quintessential archaeological activity is excavation, and that’s not even remotely possible. So how can it be archaeology? 

It seems a contradiction in terms to say that there can be an archaeology of space exploration. After all, this is recent human history, which living people have experienced and can remember. It’s more than that, too. Even though we’ve been living in the space age for over 60 years, space still has the ring of the future. The Jetsons lifestyle is always just about to happen, always waiting for that one technological breakthrough that will bring us personal jetpacks and holidays on Mars. 

But archaeology can be of the living, not just of the dead, and this means it's inextricably linked with the future. What future society can be is based on what we think it has the potential to be, and this is based on what we understand human nature to be, as demonstrated by the past. If the past is monolithic and one-dimensional, we don’t look to other futures, other possibilities. Space archaeology, I like to think, offers windows into the possibilities of the future by telling diverse stories of objects that fall outside the authorised narratives. 

It’s not just the age that makes something archaeology. Archaeology is a set of methods and theories about human interactions with the material world, whether that is the environment around us, or the multitude of objects we use to conduct our daily lives. Of course no archaeologist is going to complain about excavating a burial rich with grave goods, or a frescoed palace. But our real passion is the everyday stuff, the stone tools used to cut up a kangaroo, the earthenware pottery used to store apple cider. Counting, cataloguing, describing, and statistical analysis of artefacts allows archaeologists to discern patterns that reveal something about human actions, decisions, and sometimes even emotions. 

As historical archaeologist Dr Heather Burke says, archaeologists are really just nosy. The treasures we seek are not the golden masks of Agamemnon, but insights into what it means to be human. Beneath the surface, beneath even our consciousness, are the structures that shape what we do and the mark we leave upon the world. For every culture these are different. Usually archaeologists study cultures that are distant in time, and often distant geographically too, in ‘exotic’ field locations compared to the safe, comfortable industrial ‘west’. We are fascinated by the ‘other’. The novelist LP Hartley famously said ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. 

What makes the archaeology of the contemporary past different is that it’s an archaeology of us, right here, right now. It’s not the forgotten rubbish heap of an Ice Age forager with mammoth bones and stone tools, it’s the landfill created by a culture of mass consumption and mass disposal, in which we participate. And we don’t have to rely on just the material evidence. We can ask people what they did, what they thought they were doing. These voices and memories are a parallel strand of evidence to the documentary and archaeological records. People aren’t always right about this, of course, and memory is very fallible. This is one of the areas which archaeology is different to history.  

Monday, April 17, 2023

Space quotes by women

Recently I wanted to find a good quote about space ethics. There I hit my first problem, as there wasn't much available, short of going back to primary sources and reading through huge swathes of stuff. In this process I decided that I would also like to use a quote .... by a woman. You won't be surprised to learn that most of the space quotes out there have fallen from the cherry lips of the blokes.  I thought, wouldn't it be handy to have what the women said all compiled together in one place?

So I did what any academic worth their salt does: I turned to my online friends and asked them for recommendations. This is the list that ensued. It's just a starting point, but it demonstrates a point. Thanks to everyone who contributed!

1. Dr Peggy Whitson, astronaut and former Commander of the International Space Station, Chief of the Astronaut Office, and Chairperson of the Astronaut Selection Board

I’ve been asked many times what’s the hardest thing about space flight and I say it’s learning the language. When I became Deputy Chief at the Astronaut Office it became very obvious to me that as we were moving into long duration missions, we needed to develop our communication skills and our what we call ‘soft skills’...we were finding we were having more problems in that area than we were in technical competence.
Cambridge University Press, "World of better learning" blog, interview with Lauren Pitts, published 20 April 2020. Contributed by Margaret Ruwoldt @emelaarghh

2. Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, in 2003 
Studying whether there's life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there's something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.
Contributed by @MBBrownSF3

The thing that I'll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I'm sure it was the most fun I'll ever have in my life.
Contributed by Susan McMichael @SukiWinter

The stars don't look bigger, but they look brighter
Contributed by Megann Wilson @MoveBravely

3.  Mae Jemison, first Black woman in space
Never be limited by other people’s imagination. Never limit other’s because of your own limited imagination!
Contributed by Cameron Mackness @OzTravler

Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men.
Contributed by Megann Wilson @MoveBravely

4. Dr Anne Condon, medical education adademic

Should be more of it.

Contributed by Dr Anne Condon @skepticalmutant. I'm not sure if she means space, or space quotes by women, but I'm taking it!

5. Dr Meganne Christian, Australia's first female astronaut
And I just realised that what I love to do is to challenge myself. I didn’t actually find limits. I think they don’t necessarily exist as a solid thing.
Contributed by Anne Kreger @AnneKreger

6. Becky Chambers, science fiction author
What we want you to ask yourselves is this: what is space, to you? Is it a playground? A quarry? A flagpole? A classroom? A temple? Who do you believe should go, and for what purpose? Or should we go at all?
Abridged quote, contributed by Dr Emma Rehn @bluerehn

7. Dr Vera Rubin, the astronomer who discovered dark matter

Contributed by Doug Ingram @dougyyi

8. Ellen Ripley, alien fighter
Contributed by @TheoKyrillidis

9. Roberta Bondar, Canada's first female astronaut
To fly in space is to see the reality of earth, alone. The experience changed my life and my attitude toward life itself. I am one of the lucky ones.
Contributed by Megann Wilson @MoveBravely

10. Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space

Valentina Tereshkova told me that when she orbited over Australia she thought it “looked a nice place for a holiday”.

Contributed by Margaret Twomey @AusAmbRome

11. Christa McAuliffe, teacher and civilian astronaut
Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.
Contributed by Kat Troche @kuiperkat

12. Samantha Cristoforetti, International Space Station astronaut

It’s probably not quite what you are after but @AstroSamantha's 'There’s coffee in that nebula' quote is an inspirational woman quoting an inspirational woman about a) space and b) coffee (an inspiration drink)* *well, a fundamental and inspirational drink.

Contributed by @StefantheNurse