This emerging field aims to examine how both natural and human influences on celestial bodies across our solar system, such as Earth's moon and Mars, may affect the preservation or destruction of artifacts from space exploration.
As the excitement surrounding the new space race escalates, researchers from the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas propose a novel scientific subfield: planetary geoarchaeology. Geoarchaeology can be seen as a tool to help preserve space heritage. This emerging field aims to examine how both natural and human influences on celestial bodies across our solar system, such as Earth’s moon and Mars, may affect the preservation or destruction of artifacts from space exploration.
The Fragile Record of Space History
“Previously, we deemed the remnants from the mid-20th-century space race relatively safe,” said Justin Holcomb, a postdoctoral researcher at the Kansas Geological Survey and the leading voice in the paper introducing the concept of planetary geoarchaeology in the journal Geoarchaeology. However, he cautions, “the historical evidence currently residing on the moon is rapidly under threat of destruction, particularly if neglected during this renewed space era.”
Geoarchaeology a Tool to Preserve Space Heritage
Since humanity’s first venture into space, over 6,700 satellites and spacecraft have been launched worldwide, the Union of Concerned Scientists notes. The United States leads the pack with over 4,500 satellites spanning various sectors. Holcomb is particularly keen on preserving this spatial legacy. “As the U.S. and China set their sights on returning to the moon, our heritage on the moon is at risk. With a flurry of unintentional lunar crashes, we’re currently lacking adequate protective measures.”
The Genesis of Planetary Geoarchaeology
The idea of planetary geoarchaeology struck Holcomb during the COVID-19 lockdown. Drawing parallels between the movement of humans across space and human migration on Earth seemed a logical extension of terrestrial archaeological studies, the central theme of the ODYSSEY Archaeological Research Program. Holcomb’s co-author, Rolfe Mandel, KGS senior scientist and University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Anthropology, shares this perspective. “Space travel represents the latest stage of human migration, which possibly began as early as 150,000 years ago out of Africa,” Mandel remarked.
The Challenge of Preserving Space Artifacts
The criteria for preserving an item in space remain debatable. “We advocate that all materials on extraterrestrial surfaces should be considered space heritage and thus merit protection,” Holcomb emphasized. Nevertheless, decision-making will require a meticulous case-by-case analysis, given the vast amount of ‘trash’ scattered across lunar and Martian landscapes.
Resources for preserving space heritage are scarce. Therefore, Holcomb and his colleagues suggest the development of tracking systems for space materials. “By monitoring our expanding material record, we can protect our earliest records and limit our impact on extraterrestrial environments,” he said.
The Future of Planetary Geoarchaeology
Holcomb envisions planetary geoarchaeology playing a vital role in future explorations and migrations to Mars. Drawing attention to the impending burial of NASA’s Spirit Rover, Holcomb underscores the importance of documenting space heritage before it’s lost.
The Role of Geoarchaeologists in Space Missions
Advocating for the inclusion of geoarchaeologists in future NASA missions, Holcomb believes their presence is vital for the protection of space heritage. Meanwhile, Earth-bound geoarchaeologists can lay the groundwork by advocating for laws to protect and preserve space heritage, studying extraterrestrial ecosystem impacts, and spearheading international conversations on space heritage preservation.
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