The Sky’s Not The Limit, It’s The Beginning: A Chat With Dr. Alice Gorman, Space Archaeologist

We learn about her journey into the emerging field of space archaeology.

“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.”

“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.”

This year’s #HybridWorldADL will take place in late July in the city of Adelaide. For more details about the event, click here.

Five Women On Our Doorstep Worth Celebrating for #IWD2018

March 8 is International Women’s Day and we’re celebrating by looking at the achievements of five innovative Adelaide women who are pioneers in their respective fields. Check them out.

Flavia Nardini

Flavia is a rocket scientist. She’s the co-founder of Fleet Space Technologies, a company that aims to connect the world’s devices – yes, all of them – in an efficient, more affordable manner than ever before. Fleet Space plans to do this using a collection of tiny satellites.

Dr. Kristin Alford

Kristin is the director of MOD., a future-focused museum for young adults that connects technology, art and science. She was also the founding director of foresight agency Bridge8., which focuses on facilitating nanotechnology, water sustainability, health and other futures for corporations, government and not-for-profit organisations.

Dr. Michelle Fraser and Dr. Melinda Jasper 

At science-tech company RHS, Michelle and Melinda make products for testing single cells to ensure they have the right amount of DNA in them. That way, it can be determined if the cells have a genetic fault that causes disease. RHS is currently developing software for applications like prenatal or cancer diagnosis.

“I think that it’s great there are a lot of role models for STEM that are female. We’ve got more women at RHS than men, and it’s not unusual to find a lot of women in the health space. There’s a lot of women CEOs of listed biotech companies, particularly in South Australia,” says Michelle.

“We’re ASX listed, so a lot of the people that we meet with about investment decisions are male. So I’d love to see some more women in that, covering the health stocks,” she says.

Professor Tanya Monro

Tanya is renowned is in the field of photonics, having a range of patents to her name and publishing more than 500 scientific papers. She focuses on sensing, lasers and new classes of optical fibres. She is Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation; and an ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow at the University of South Australia.

This year’s #HybridWorldADL will take place in July in the city of Adelaide. For more details about the event, click here.