“Space Archaeologists” to Examine the International Space Station

Using millions of photos and documents, researchers will reconstruct life on the ISS to see how visitors interact with their tools and each other


Most archaeological sites are pretty old and firmly on the ground, or rather, under the ground. But a new project is taking archaeology in orbit, with “space archaeologists” examining the culture and society that has developed on the International Space Station (ISS) over the 17 years its been in orbit, reports Megan Gannon at Space.com.

The genesis of the Space Archaeology program began in 2015 when NASA began looking for its newest class of astronauts. The agency encouraged scientists including doctors, geologists and computer scientists to apply, but Justin Walsh, an archaeologist at Chapman University in Orange, California, was miffed that social scientists weren’t included. “I thought that was too bad,” he tells Gannon. “If they’re thinking about sending people to Mars, sending people to deep space, or sending people to [the] moon for long periods of time, it would really behoove them to understand how astronaut societies are maintained, how astronauts create a kind of culture.”

That’s why Walsh teamed up with Alice Gorman of Flinders University in Australia, who specializes in documenting space junk and artifacts from the Space Age (which is now courting 60 years). The two have started a project to conduct an archaeological examination of the ISS, which has seen the involvement of five space agencies and been visited by at least 252 people from 18 countries since November 2000.

According to a blog post on their site, ISS Archaeology, they will not be able to travel to the space station themselves. Instead, they will use the millions of photographs taken over nearly two decades onboard the ISS to document developments and change within the station's “microculture.” The researchers will eventually use crowdsourcing to help tag and catalogue that huge cache of photos, though they also hope to use machine learning and AI to help with the job. The project will likely take several years.

Using those photos and inventory lists from NASA and elsewhere, the team plans to create a 4-D model showing the movements of every visitor to the space station and how each object was used over time. Using that model, Walsh and Gorman hope to pick out patterns of behavior among visitors and investigate a host of social science questions about how people behave in “a microsociety in a miniworld.” Questions they hope to address include:

How do crewmembers interact with each other and with equipment and spaces originating in other cultures? How does material culture reflect gender, race, class, and hierarchy on the ISS? How do spaces and objects frame interactions of conflict or cooperation? How have crewmembers altered the space station to suit their needs or desires? What are the effects of microgravity on the development of society and culture?

Gannon points out that social scientists have already studied how isolation impacts astronauts and that digital cameras have helped document day-to-day life on the ISS pretty well. Walsh and Gorman think their approach, however, could be helpful to space agencies by revealing how tensions arise between astronauts and how crews of differing nationalities interact in ways they may not be conscious of.

“It is our contention that the structures of the microsociety on board the International Space Station will become visible to us by looking at its material culture – the built spaces and the objects placed there by the crew – and the associations of crewmembers with that material culture,” the team writes on its blog.

Unlike archaeological sites here on Earth, the ISS likely won't be around in 1,000 years for archeologists to explore. In fact, without more funding the ISS will lose NASA’s support in 2024, and sometime in the future it will fall into the ocean. Then it will be a problem for underwater archaeologists.

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