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Astroarchaeology study: Life and culture on the International Space Station

A study in the Journal Antiquity features astroarchaeologists who have been reconstructing life on the International Space Station (ISS) over the past two decades, to better understand space culture and get an inside look at how astronauts interact with their tools and colleagues when above Earth.

The study, A method for space archaeology research: the International Space Station Archaeological Project, was written by Justin St P. Walsh (Chapman University) and Alice C. Gorman (Flinders University).

The ability to understand the “microsociety” of crews on board the ISS offers a window into how life in space functions, as humans consider interplanetary exploration. So how is this gravity-defying research made possible?

Study examined millions of photographs

According to Gorman, a space archaeologist and associate professor at Flinders, because ISS researchers obviously can’t travel to the space station themselves, they opted to use millions of photographs taken onboard over nearly two decades, to document developments and changes within the station’s lifestyle and cultural makeup.

“Fortunately for us, the first occupation of the ISS coincided with the emergence of digital photography,” said 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 catalog that huge cache of photos, with the project likely to take several years.”

However, the researchers also will be able to get onboard with the help of astronauts conducting archaeological surveys of the ISS interior, to document aspects of life that can’t be derived from image analysis alone.

“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 Walsh.

An aerosol sampling experiment, which collects air and particulates on the station, will provide 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.

Research methods will focus on:

  • Analyzing images using machine learning to catalog association between crew members and spaces within the station and objects/tools.
  • Interviewing flight and ground crews.
  • Developing procedures for the ISS crew for on-site archaeological surveys.
  • Investigating ISS cargo return (de-integration) activity and analyzing the values and meanings associated with returned items.
  • Investigating and possibly excavating archaeological sites on Earth related to the development, deployment, and discard of technology and resources consumed by the crew.

Gorman said an often-overlooked but important component of operations on the ISS is the return of items to Earth.

“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,” she said.

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

Funding for this work came from both Wilkinson College of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Chapman University and the International Space Station Archaeological Project, which is funded by the Australian Research Council for 2019–2021.

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