The archaeology of orbital space
School of Human and Environmental Studies, University of New
Last modified: June 10, 2005
Since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, earth orbit has accumulated more than 8000 trackable objects. These objects include satellites, launch vehicle upper stages, mission-related debris, human remains and “space junk”. Orbital space is now an organically evolving cultural landscape. Both the materials in it and their location in this landscape, or spacescape, may have significance in social, historical, scientific and aesthetic terms according to the internationally recognized guidelines of the Burra Charter (1999).
However, the amount of debris constitutes a threat for the successful development and delivery of space services. In the near future, space agencies are considering the necessity of removing material from orbital space. Proposals include destruction using ground-based laser, electrodynamic tethers, and intervention missions. In the longer term, some orbital material may be both the subject of commercial salvage operations, and a destination for space tourists.
But not every object poses the same risk to space operations. By assessing the risk presented by different debris size classes, I argue that there is considerable leeway for preserving significant orbital objects such as Vanguard 1, the oldest human object in space, and Australia's FedSat scientific satellite. This paper discusses the heritage value of orbital material and "space junk", and suggests avenues for managing the archaeological record of human endeavours beyond the atmosphere.