What Is Space Archaeology? We Ask ‘Dr. Space Junk’, Alice Gorman

She’s appearing at this year’s Tech Conference.

“Looking at the stars was a massive influence for me,” says Dr. Alice Gorman of her earliest memories observing space. “When I was a little kid, I grew up on a farm. We had the milky way right there.”

Gorman is a Senior Lecturer at Flinders University, and a leader in the field of space archaeology. But it wasn’t a field she originally intended to explore. She says the night sky, coupled with a set of science encyclopaedias her father bought from a travelling salesperson, actually prompted her to first become interested in astrophysics.

“I wanted to be an astrophysicist, and I also wanted to be an archaeologist. But in school systems, girls are discouraged from going into STEM… it’s not necessarily overt, but it’s definitely there. Or was there,” Gorman says.

“I had a revelation one day – while looking at the sky – that space junk might have archaeological value.”

“I had a revelation one day – while looking at the sky – that space junk might have archaeological value.”

“So I ended up becoming an archaeologist. It wasn’t until I finished my PHD and I was working in a heritage job, that I had a revelation one day – while looking at the sky – that space junk might have archaeological value. So that set me on this path.”

What is space archaeology?

To a person first hearing the words ‘space archaeology’, it might sound like an oxymoron. “People generally think archaeology is about old stuff. And most of the time, it is. But it’s also a set of theories and methods. So you can apply those to any period, and what I’ve chosen to do is apply those to the contemporary era,” says Gorman.

“I’m focusing on space exploration as a technology, as an industry and as a whole social world. It’s really about human behaviour and interaction with technology – it just happens to be quite recent and modern.”

Why is space junk an issue?

Of particular interest to Gorman is space junk, or the objects humans leave behind after space exploration (as an aside, her Twitter handle is @drspacejunk). She’s critical of the amount of objects humans have abandoned in space, though she acknowledges the technical and financial difficulties associated with removing them.

“At the moment, everyone recognises we have a huge problem with the amount of space junk in Earth’s orbit. Everybody would like to do something about it, but the technological difficulties are so great that no one has yet,” she says.

“There’s often fuel left (in space junk), and the fuel is unstable and explosive. You have all these rocket bodies floating around with unstable fuel, and you don’t know when – or if – they’re going to explode.”

“You have all these rocket bodies floating around with unstable fuel, and you don’t know when – or if – they’re going to explode.”

Guidelines have been created to minimise the amount of new debris, but Gorman says almost half of all missions launched fail to meet them.

“It’s terrible! And the reason they don’t do that is because it costs money.”

Can space junk be valuable?

In Gorman’s view, some space junk is highly significant. She points to the Vanguard 1 and Australis-OSCAR 5 as examples. “Vanguard 1 is now the oldest satellite in Earth’s orbit. It was launched in 1958, and is very much a Cold War satellite. The beginnings of space technology is fascinating,” she says.

“Australis-OSCAR 5 was built in the 1960s and launched in 1970, so it’s a piece of Australian space history that’s out there. At the global level, you might say it doesn’t mean anything – but it means something to Australians.”

Gorman is also fond of Indonesia’s first communications satellite, Palapa A1. She says technology can have a positive social impact.

“It launched in 1976, which is pretty early for a country that isn’t one of the big space players. The idea was that the satellite would unite all the different islands and language groups of Indonesia. Socially, it’s very significant.”

Dr. Alice Gorman will speak at Hybrid World Adelaide’s 2018 Tech Conference. Buy tickets now.