by W. L. Rathje
As it turns out, my wishful thinking was already outdated. Thomas Mallon (in a 1997 issue of Preservation) wrote that on November 19, 1969, when astronauts recovered the Surveyor 3 unmanned probe that had soft-landed on the moon's surface, human's had already begun the archaeology of their presence there.
But are we earthlings conducting the first exo-archaeology? Perhaps not. As recently as August 1996, a NASA team examined a potato-sized chunk of Mars that hit Antarctica 13,000 years ago. They concluded it might contain signs of life. While their evidence is not widely accepted, the announcement led London bookmakers to lower the odds of finding intelligent life somewhere else in the universe.
If there are exo-archaeologists working on other planets, I wonder what they make of our first ventures into their realm. As any Earthbound archaeologist knows, what most defines our humanness is our indefatigable urge to create garbage, which turns into archaeology's bounty. What could an extraterrestrial archaeologist learn of us from studying our garbage in space?
Earth is surrounded by chunks of orbital flotsam that, says Nicholas Johnson (Scientific American, 1998), "resemble angry bees around a beehive, seeming to move randomly in all directions." Look at their numbers, and you can almost hear them buzz.
First, there are about 10,000 "resident space objects" - and only 5 percent of them were functioning spacecraft in 1997. The artifacts include more than 1,500 empty upper-stage rockets and a myriad of explosive bolts, clamp bands, springs, even lens caps jettisoned from assorted payloads.
Then there is real garbage. During its first decade in orbit, for example, more than 200 objects drifted away from the Soviets' Mir space station, most of them cloaked inside garbage bags.
But the greatest source of significant space stuff is the approximately 150 satellites that have blown up or fallen apart, either deliberately or accidentally. They left a trail of 7,000 fragments large enough (over 10 centimeters, or almost four inches) to be tracked from Earth.
This gaggle of space junk may sound like a laughing matter - unless you happened to be in the outback of Australia when the 150-ton Skylab crashed there in 1979. Or unless you can imagine the result of the Russian booster crashing into, or even grazing, the space station. Then you'd know why understanding the causes and trajectories of space junk is important to our future in space. That's why the Air Force and NASA have their own brand of exo-archaeologists tracking and modeling the future of these space orphans.
By now, extraterrestrial exo-archaeologists must have some theories about why we continually shoot ourselves in the foot with our garbage. Perhaps they have discovered one of the most consistent human/artifact relationships: Whenever we humans try something new, we throw everything we can into the attempt. The result is a tremendous accumulation of leftover junk.
In fact, frontiers, both physical and theoretical, are junk magnets. We worry about our immediate goal - settling an "untamed" land, "conquering" Mount Everest, or "harnessing" nuclear power - and not about cleaning up the mess we leave behind.
American pioneers abandoned so much of what they had loaded onto their Conestoga wagons that professional scavengers followed their trails West. Fields of discarded oxygen bottles, climbing equipment, and camping gear create eyesores on Mount Everest. And then there is our nuclear-waste dilemma: tons of radioactive material with no disposal plan in place.
Space exploration has been no different. So now we are stuck with two kinds of space artifacts - those in the heavens and those on Earth.
The airborne detritus of our space past already is affecting our space future. Since junk in Earth orbit races along at 20,000 feet per second, collisions are considered the most serious threat to the International Space Station and its future occupants.
Space artifacts on the planet aren't such a problem, thanks to our uncontrollable urge to collect. People have been hoarding space memorabilia for decades. But their monetary value pales beside the educational potential of items that have been out in space. Museums' demand for space artifacts is as strong as their turn-of-the-century lust for Egyptian mummies. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum already holds legal title to Viking I, a robot probe that's still sitting on the surface of Mars after 20 years.
Since the Smithsonian and NASA had first dibs on items in pristine shape, the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas, chose a strategy of restoring battered and unwanted artifacts, such as a pair of unused spacecraft that were saved from the trash heap.
If we look at all the Earth-generated debris in space as a great metaphor for the profligate discard practices of humanity, we might learn a few lessons.
We created our spacebound gizmos with little thought about disposal. Lesson 1: Whether designing a new box for burgers or the next flight to Mars, ultimate disposal should be considered during development.
Our collection-mania is far from sated. Lesson 2: There will be gold out there for whoever figures out how to recapture, renovate, reuse, and recycle what we have already wrought.
The first, and so far only, man-made object to leave our solar system and sail among the stars is a little Pioneer 11 robot-spacecraft, launched in December 1974, that spectacularly fulfilled its task of exploring Jupiter and Saturn.
On its side is a plaque that shows a woman and a man, plus the location of the sun in relation to several prominent stars, and Earth's status as the third planet out. In the vacuum of space, the little messenger will last essentially forever. The idea is that someday some space-faring civilization might stumble across Pioneer 11 and know that life exists on this small, blue planet.
How fitting that our first emissary to the stars is our trash.
W.L. Rathje of Tucson, Arizona, is a Senior Editor of Discovering Archaeology.
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