In the midst of a new space race, two researchers from the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas have proposed an exciting new subfield called “planetary geoarchaeology.” This emerging discipline focuses on studying how cultural and natural processes on celestial bodies like Earth’s moon, Mars, and other places in the solar system might be altering, preserving, or even destroying the material record of space exploration.
Justin Holcomb, a postdoctoral researcher at the Kansas Geological Survey and lead author of the paper, emphasizes the need to safeguard the material left behind during the mid-20th-century space race. He warns that the material record on the moon is at risk of destruction if not properly managed during the ongoing space exploration era.
The advent of space exploration has seen the launch of thousands of satellites and spacecraft, with numerous countries participating in these missions. As space missions continue to increase, the risk to space heritage becomes more significant. Accidental crashes on the moon and other celestial bodies have already occurred, underscoring the lack of adequate protections in place.
Holcomb and his colleagues were inspired to consider planetary geoarchaeology during the COVID-19 lockdown, seeing it as a natural extension of the study of human migration on Earth. They believe that all material existing on extraterrestrial surfaces should be considered space heritage and protected. However, determining which items are worth preserving will require careful evaluation on a case-by-case basis.
The researchers advocate for the development of systems to track materials left in space to preserve the earliest records and monitor our impact on extraterrestrial environments. Holcomb suggests that including geoarchaeologists in future NASA missions would be beneficial to protect and document space heritage. Currently, the focus on successful missions often overlooks the importance of the material left behind.
Looking ahead, the researchers hope to see planetary geoarchaeology extend to issues related to exploration and migration to Mars. They cite the example of NASA’s Spirit Rover, which is at risk of being buried by encroaching sand dunes on Mars. As planetary geoarchaeologists, they can predict and document such occurrences.
In conclusion, the researchers believe that advocating for laws to protect and preserve space heritage, studying the impact of extraterrestrial ecosystems on space mission materials, and engaging in international discussions on preservation and protection are crucial steps in advancing the field of planetary geoarchaeology. While they acknowledge the vast work to be done on Earth, they express the hope of witnessing an archaeologist participating in a space mission one day.
Source: University of Kansas