5 mins read 13 Oct 2021

The International Space Station Archaeology Project

Research is being conducted by archaeologists into the “micro society” aboard the International Space Station to get an inside look into the lives of astronauts and their off-planet lifestyles. 

The International Space Station as seen over the Caspian Sea. Credit: NASA.

Instead of looking down to the ground, new archaeology research is looking up to the stars. The International Space Station (ISS) and its crews are at the centre of an archaeological study to explore space culture. The purpose of the study is to investigate the “micro-society” aboard the ISS by taking a closer look at how astronauts interact with their tools and colleagues when aboard their home-away-from-home above Earth. Results from this research will provide a window into what makes up life in space, and potentially could be applied to future human space missions. 

Associate Professor Alice Gorman, one of the lead researchers for this project, explained that this movement of archaeology into space is a natural progression of the field. 

“Archaeologists have long studied human habitats - houses, campsites, caves and rock shelters  - which date from the time of our earliest ancestors, so it makes sense to continue that trajectory into the modern world. 

“We can’t change the past, but what is exciting about this research is that we might be able to change the future. The results of our International Space Station study can be applied to the design of new space habitats,” she said. 

To gather their data, researchers won’t be able to travel to the space station themselves. Instead, Associate Professor Alice Gorman and Associate Professor Justin Walsh have devised methods which can be conducted remotely, removing some of the problems which come about from the station’s inaccessibility. This method contains five key ideas: image analysis, interviews and questionnaires, development of procedures to be conducted by astronauts on the ISS, investigation of ISS cargo that has returned to Earth, and investigation of related Earth-based sites.  

“First, we're trying simply to understand what features comprise the culture of a space habitat. Second, we are looking at how the site has developed, growing from two modules to more than a dozen, being visited by almost 250 people, and transitioning from a place devoted exclusively to science to one with a variety of functions, including commercial activity, tourism, and entertainment,” said Associate Professor Walsh. 

Studying the ISS as Archaeology

Photographs are taken aboard all the time on the ISS during the astronauts’ everyday life, not just on special occasions like when fresh fruit arrives onboard. Credit: NASA.

Due to the remoteness of the ISS, images are one of the only ways that researchers can see the inside of the ISS.  

“Fortunately for us, the first occupation of the ISS coincided with the emergence of digital photography,” said Associate Professor Gorman.

“The images include metadata recording the time and date, which become an excavation, linking the contents of images to moments in time. Given that the crew takes approximately 400 photographs per day, images depicting the station interior now number in the millions.

“We’ll eventually use crowdsourcing to help tag and catalogue that huge cache of photos, with the project likely to take several years.”

The ISS is a surprisingly dirty place. Astronauts don’t get a break from cleaning when they are aboard the ISS. Here, NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, Expedition 32 flight engineer, uses a vacuum cleaner during housekeeping operations in the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

To build a more nuanced picture of what life on the ISS consists of, researchers will also develop methods for astronauts to conduct investigations aboard the ISS to gather data.  

“One potential survey is surface sampling for the build-up of dust, hair, skin cells, oil, dirt, food, broken fragments of equipment and other materials,” said Associate Professor Walsh.

“An aerosol sampling experiment, which collects air and particulates on the station, provides valuable baseline data. Other techniques include audio recording to identify levels of ambient sound and documentation of specific public spaces, such as eating areas, and, if possible, private spaces such as crew berths."

“Understanding how individuals and groups use material culture in space stations, from discrete objects to contextual relationships, promises to reveal intersections of identity, nationality and community.”

While data will be gathered from the ISS itself for archaeology, there are also places to look on Earth. Credit: NASA.

But one source of data that is often forgotten about, said Associate Professor Gorman, is the cargo that has returned to Earth from the ISS. 

“The return of items from the ISS can be interpreted archaeologically as a form of discard process. Preliminary analysis of our interview transcripts indicates the complexity of the process whereby items enter the inventory and are subsequently dispersed.”

“If items associated with the ISS have been discarded on Earth in soil matrices, traditional archaeological excavation techniques could be used to retrieve and analyse them.”

Recently there have been suggestions that the ISS is nearing the end of its life, but that humanity will continue space-based life with new technology. Associate Professor Gorman believes that research into the archaeology of the ISS could benefit this change, not only in finding a way forward but also in emphasising the importance of present technology. 

“As our research progresses, we’ll be able to identify which are the most multifunctional objects to have in space, not by how they’re designed but by looking at how crew actually use them. This is just an example, but this kind of information will be incredibly important when you have a mission that can’t easily be provisioned from Earth,” she said.  

“At the moment multiple nations are pursuing their own lunar and Martian exploration plans and space is becoming splintered between different interests. For me the ISS is a symbol of international cooperation in space. When it’s de-orbited, that symbol will be gone and I think we will be the poorer for it.”

Read more about the ISS Archaeology Methods from a paper recently published in Antiquity.