'Planetary geoarchaeology' might be the next big scientific field

"The material record that currently exists on the moon is rapidly becoming at risk of being destroyed..."
John Loeffler
Illustration of future astronauts on Artemis Mission
Illustration of future astronauts on Artemis Mission


As a new space race heats up, researchers from the Kansas Geological Survey have introduced a new scientific subfield, "planetary geoarchaeology,” with the aim of protecting humanity’s space heritage. 

This emerging discipline would investigate how both natural and cultural processes on celestial bodies like the moon, Mars, and throughout the solar system might be influencing, preserving, or erasing the material evidence of space exploration.

Justin Holcomb, a postdoctoral researcher at the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS), emphasized the urgency of safeguarding the material remnants from the mid-20th-century space race, which were previously considered relatively secure. However, the material currently existing on the moon faces increasing risks of destruction due to the ongoing space exploration era.

“Until recently, we might consider the material left behind during the space race of the mid-20th century as relatively safe,” Holcomb said in a University of Kansas statement. “However, the material record that currently exists on the moon is rapidly becoming at risk of being destroyed if proper attention isn’t paid during the new space era.”

The new concept was proposed in a new paper in the journal Geoarchaeology.

Over 6,700 satellites and spacecraft have been launched by countries worldwide since space exploration began, with the United States alone contributing more than 4,500 such missions. This escalating activity, coupled with the intentions of the U.S. and China to return to the moon, has raised concerns about the preservation of space heritage. Accidental crashes into the moon have already occurred, highlighting the lack of protective measures in place.

“We’re trying to draw attention to the preservation, study, and documentation of space heritage because I do think there’s a risk to this heritage on the moon,” Holcomb said. “The United States is trying to get boots on the moon again, and China is as well. We’ve already had at least four countries accidentally crash into the moon recently. There are a lot of accidental crashes and not a lot of protections right now.”

Holcomb and others believe that applying geoarchaeological methodologies to the study of human migration into space and the solar system aligns with the research focus of the ODYSSEY Archaeological Research Program, directed by Rolfe Mandel, a senior scientist at KGS.

Human migration out of Africa may have occurred as early as 150,000 years ago, and space travel represents the latest stage of that journey,” Mandel said. “Although the ODYSSEY program is focused on documenting the earliest evidence of people in the Americas, the next frontier for similar research will be in space.”

The question of which extraterrestrial items are worth preserving poses a challenge. Holcomb and his team advocate protecting all existing material on celestial surfaces as space heritage, including iconic sites like the first moon landing at Tranquility Base and the Viking 1 lander on Mars, both symbolizing significant milestones in human migration.

Although resources for preserving space heritage are limited, the researchers propose the implementation of tracking systems to monitor materials left in space. This approach would not only protect the earliest historical records but also assess humanity's impact on extraterrestrial environments.

Holcomb envisions extending planetary geoarchaeology to address exploration and migration issues related to Mars. For instance, the fate of NASA's Spirit Rover, stuck in Martian sand since 2008, requires careful consideration to ensure proper documentation before it becomes entirely buried.

The researchers call for greater collaboration between geoarchaeologists and planetary scientists. They suggest involving geoarchaeologists in future NASA missions to safeguard space heritage. On Earth, they emphasize the importance of advocating for laws protecting space heritage, studying the effects of extraterrestrial ecosystems on abandoned space mission items, and engaging in international discussions about space heritage preservation and protection.

While Holcomb remains dedicated to Earth-bound archaeological work, he hopes to witness an archaeologist's involvement in space missions in the future.

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