Terms like “cultural heritage” and “archaeology” might conjure Indiana Jones-lie scenes of old and ancient things buried under the sands of time. But even now, each one of us is producing material that could interest future humans trying to record and study our own era.
For those who believe that space exploration and astronauts’ first departures from Earth are culturally significant, then there is a wealth of objects that spacefarers—crewed and uncrewed, past and present—have left in the realms beyond our atmosphere.
“This stuff is an extension of our species’ migration, beginning in Africa and extending to the solar system,” says Justin Holcomb, an archaeologist with the Kansas Geological Survey. “I argue that a piece of a lander is the exact same thing as a piece of a stone tool in Africa.”
This idea is the heart of what Holcomb and his colleagues call “planetary geoarchaeology.” In a paper published in the journal Geoarchaeology on July 21, these “space archaeologists” detail how they want to study the interactions between the items we’ve left around the solar system and the hostile environments they now occupy. This research, the authors believe, will only become more important as human activity on the moon is set to blossom in the decades to come.
The idea of documenting and preserving what we leave behind in space isn’t a completely new concept. In the early 2000s, New Mexico State University anthropologist Beth O’Leary (who co-authored the paper with Holcomb) cataloged objects scattered around Tranquility Base, Apollo 11’s landing site on the moon. O’Leary later helped get some of those artifacts registered in California and New Mexico as culturally significant properties.
“I would argue that Tranquility Base could easily be considered the most important archaeological site that exists,” says Justin St. P. Walsh, an archaeologist at Chapman University in California who was not…