“In the eighteenth century it was the fashion to take the grand tour and to visit the sites of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome,” they write. “In the nineteenth century the museums, galleries, and historic sites of the world burgeoned under new waves of historic cultural awareness.”
“In the twenty-first century,” however, “we can be sure that people will be visiting heritage sites beyond the confines of our atmosphere.” Indeed, as the title of their paper suggests, these abandoned satellites and other spacecraft will likely be preserved in situ, still actively orbiting the planet or even circling a Jovian moon, but certainly not displayed behind glass somewhere in an earthbound museum.
In this vision of what Barclay and Brooks describe as “the future of museums beyond the atmosphere,” tomorrow’s grand tourists will come face-to-hull with ancient spacecraft, the way economically privileged Europeans once visited Notre Dame or the Colosseum. Their new destinations will be archaeological sites in space.
Alice Gorman is a professor of archaeology at Flinders University, where she is also deputy chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia. For Gorman, performing archaeology outside of a terrestrial context means that “we have to rethink the meaning of place” altogether. This is both difficult and essential. After all, she explains, “a prerequisite for gathering archaeological data is knowing where things are”—yet the very idea of a fixed location falls apart when the object of study is in constant motion. “In orbit,” Gorman writes, “position changes every second and must be continually tracked in order to know where to locate an object.”
For an archaeologist studying satellites this is uniquely troubling, and it means that it can be next to impossible to define an actual historic “site.” At best, you can supply an equation for a particular satellite’s intended orbit and then wait for it to reappear there, like the so-called Iridium flare; but, even with geosynchronous spacecraft, you’re often dealing with an unclear smudge of locational probabilities. It’s like excavating the walls of Troy, only to come back the next day and find that the city has somehow moved.
If archaeologists want to maintain a record of what is in orbit, and to keep tabs on those objects in the future, then something beyond mere maps will be necessary. For Gorman, this means reconceptualizing archaeological space itself, as something that is topological rather than geographic.
Gorman has thus advocated thinking about offworld historical research—the in situ study of abandoned satellites and derelict spacecraft—in terms of how those objects interact with the planet’s gravity well. It is about trajectory, we might say, not location. As Gorman explained to me, this could have far-reaching conceptual implications for how archaeologists define and study offworld artifacts.