As It Happens

Archeology in space? Researchers conduct a survey of the International Space Station

While most archeologists study ancient artifacts buried deep underground, these researchers have their sights set on a different kind of archeological site — one that's in orbit 408 kilometres above the Earth. 

Study of ISS astronauts and their environment billed as the '1st large-scale space archaeology project'

A space station orbits above Earth.
The International Space Station is pictured here on Oct. 4, 2018. A team of archeologists have begun what they say are the first-ever archeological experiments in space aboard the ISS. (NASA/Roscosmos/Reuters)

Story Transcript

While most archeologists study ancient artifacts buried deep underground, a pair of researchers have their sights set on a different kind of archeological site — one that's in orbit 408 kilometres above the Earth. 

Archeologists from the U.S. and Australia have launched what they're calling the first-ever large-scale space archeology project, studying the objects and habits of astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

"I think the broader public has the sense of archeology being based in the distant past. But actually, contemporary archeology is a field that's been around for almost 50 years now," Justin Walsh, an archeologist from Chapman University in California, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"Basically, everything is the past. So I would say basically everything is available for archaeologists to study."

1st archeological experiments in space

Walsh has teamed up with Alice Gorman of Australia's Flinders University to launch the International Space Station Archaeological Project. This month, the pair began their first experiments aboard the ISS. 

"It's not every day that you get to see the very first example of something in your discipline happening live before your eyes, let alone that it's happening, you know, 300 miles up, moving 17,500 miles an hour. So that was pretty wild," Walsh said.

Space archeologist Alice Gorman, a pioneer in the field, is seen sweeping the 'Cosmic Welcome Mat' — a conceptual art piece — at the entrance to the 68th International Astronautical Congress 2017 in Adelaide, Australia. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Archeology is broadly defined as the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture.

Walsh, a pioneer in the field of space archeology, uses satellite imagery to study things like orbital debris, terrestrial launch sites, and satellite tracking stations. 

She says she and Walsh are the first archeologists to use the field to "understand how humans relate to the items they live with in space."

"By bringing archeological perspectives to an active space domain, we're the first to show how people adapt their behaviour to a completely new environment," she said in a university press release.

So how do you conduct an archeological survey in space?

It's surprisingly similar to what's done at an Earth-bound archeological site — break it up into squares, and focus on one at a time.

On Earth, an archeological team would divide a site into a grid of  one-metre by one-metre squares, marked by wooden stakes or metal rods, depending on the environment, and then study each one individually. 

Unfortunately for Walsh and Gorman, NASA doesn't allow social scientists to be trained as astronauts, so they can't work aboard the ISS.

Instead, the station's crew members have marked off six locations aboard the ISS with squares of yellow tape.

The astronauts have agreed to photograph each square at the same time every day for 60 days, and then randomly for another 30 days. The images will be sent back to Earth, where Walsh and Gorman will study them. 

An image of the galley in the US Node 1 module of the International Space Station, with a yellow square showing one of the archeological team's proposed sample areas. (NASA)

The idea, says Walsh, is to observe the "material culture" aboard the ISS. 

What objects are being used, and how? Are those objects changing over time? How do astronauts use the space around them? Do they use it as intended, or are they making adaptations on the fly to suit their needs?

"We're capturing essentially what activities are happening at particular moments in space," he said.

Justin Walsh, a professor of history and archeology at Chapman University in California, holds up a model of the ISS. (Adam Hemingway)

One thing they're looking at, for example, is how the astronauts recreate the effect of gravity aboard the space station using materials like handrails, Velcro and resealable bags that hold things in place.

"And by the effect of gravity, what I'm really talking about is when you put something down, it stays where you put it," he said.

"That's something that we're just fundamentally expect of our environment as humans when we live on planet Earth … and that's obviously not the case on the ISS."

Talking to astronauts

But unlike archeologists who study ancient civilizations, Walsh and Gormand will actually have the opportunity to communicate directly with their subjects.

"We're planning to talk to the crew about what they thought about the experience of documenting their own habitat over this time," Walsh said.

Their findings, he said, could have practical applications for the future of space exploration, helping the designers of space stations understand what they need to provide for their crews. 

He noted that several such projects are in currently the works. NASA is partnering with space agencies in Canada, Japan and Europe to build the Gateway, an outpost that will orbit the moon. And private space companies, like Axiom and Blue Origin, are eyeing the constriction of their own commercial space stations.

"What we found in our discussions is that they don't yet understand what they don't know about life in space," Walsh said. "That's where we come in."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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