Capturing the heritage of the International Space Station before it crashes into the ocean

Capturing the heritage of the International Space Station before it crashes into the ocean

The space station will join fragments of Russia’s Mir and NASA Skylab in an uninhabited area of ​​the South Pacific, home to more than 263 pieces of deliberately sunken space debris.

The final fate of the space station was part of the plan even before the modules were launched. But when the space station goes out of orbit, it will be the end of an era. And part of his legacy will be preserved thanks to space archeology.

Moreover, by understanding the ways in which astronauts have used space and tools on the space station, this data can be used in the design of future spacecraft and habitats when exploring the Moon and Mars.

The first of its kind

The first archaeological research ever conducted outside of Earth was: idea by Justin St. P. Walsh, associate professor of art history and archeology at Chapman University, California, and Alice Gorman, associate professor at the College of the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Flinders University, Australia. In December 2015, they began a creative process of looking at the space station from an archaeological perspective.

With the help of the ISS National Laboratory for the Advancement of Space Science and implementation partner Axiom Space, Walsh and Gorman finally saw their first step in their research become a reality this year.

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Space is the last frontier for archaeologists

“The ISS is such an important place for the development of mankind in space,” said Walsh. “If this were a place on Earth, we would do everything we can to preserve it. But it’s not technically feasible, so the next thing archaeologists do, for example when sites are flooded due to dam construction, is documenting everything we can about the site and keeping this documentation and any samples ”for posterity.

The project started at the space station in January. The experiment, called the Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages or SQuARE Research Experiment, is simple.

Archaeologists often place the test pit at an interesting location, dividing it into a grid of squares for excavation purposes.

The dotted yellow line marks an example location for the Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages Research Experiment, part of the starboard workstation on NASA's Node 2 (Harmony) module at the International Space Station, photographed on January 15.

However, it’s not possible to dig through the layers of a space station – or for scientists to just buckle up there to conduct research.

Astronauts have placed 1 meter squares of tape on the walls of the entire space station and photographed them every day for 60 days to show how these areas change over time.

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The findings can mimic the way soil layers preserve different moments in time at archaeological sites.

Squares were placed around the kitchen table where the crew eats their meals, opposite the latrines, a work station and two different study stations, as well as a place chosen by the crew. Six sites show what everyday life is like in a state of zero gravity.

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Documenting a piece of life in space

Heritage sites are often considered places of historical interest on Earth, but they also exist in space, Gorman said.

The Apollo landing sites on the moon are a perfect example, and when we leave human and robotic footprints in places like Mars, these important sites will spread.

“Nobody has collected this data before, so we don’t have it for Mir and Skylab,” said Gorman.

Astronaut of the European Space Agency Matthias Maurer tweeted his excitement about participating in the experiment in February.

“Space Archeology with SQUARES. Using a ruler and a color chart, we document the use and modification of specific areas on #ISS to help design future spacecraft and habitats, ”Maurer wrote in his tweet.

This can be especially useful when trying to figure out where to place what Gorman calls “gravity surrogates,” the bungee cords, clips, and clasps that are essential to life in the absence of gravity.

NASA astronaut Kayla Barron takes a photo of the sample's location in the US Node 2 (Harmony) module on the International Space Station for the Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages Research Experiment on January 15.

“We expect to find adaptation aspects to living in an environment that no one knew about before,” said Gorman.

“If you were an archaeologist excavating a long Viking house, you might have ideas about what works and what doesn’t, but you don’t get to knock on a Viking door and say,” Hey me. ” Here are some ideas for how you will design your next little village. But we have such an opportunity. “

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A futuristic runaway

The SQuARE experiment will end on March 22nd. When the crew, including NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn and Mark Vande Hei, return to Earth this spring, scientists will have the opportunity to talk to them.

The International Space Station may fall from the sky in 2031.  What's next?

Gorman and Walsh envision a series of six additional experiments should they raise funds.

Other experiments include recording the space station’s acoustic environment and documenting the search for privacy in a small habitat, which can be useful as crews prepare to experience time on a much smaller Gate that will orbit between the Moon and Earth as a center to support lunar exploration.

Conversely, the lessons Gorman and Walsh learn from their first experiment aboard a space station can be applied to remote places on Earth, such as artifacts left on Mount Everest after decades of human climbing to its summit.

“This could be the beginning of the different types of archeology that we might see in the future,” said Gorman.