In archaeology, space archaeology is the research-based study of various human-made items found in space, their interpretation as clues to the adventures mankind has experienced in space, and their preservation as cultural heritage.
It includes launch complexes on Earth, orbital debris, satellites, and objects and structures on other celestial bodies such as Mars. It also includes the applied field of cultural resource which evaluates the significance of space sites and objects in terms of national and international preservation laws. Cultural resource looks at what, how and why these artifacts of our recent history should be preserved for future generations.
Space tourism could affect archaeological artifacts, for example, on the Moon. The notion that cultural heritage is at stake and requires action to prevent deterioration or destruction is gaining ground. Perhaps artifacts (say, antiquated space stations) could be preserved in "museum orbit". Many such artifacts have been lost because they were not recognized and assessed. Experts assert that continuity and connection to the past are vital elements of survival in the modern world. A model has been suggested for international cooperation based upon Antarctica. Implications for cooperation interest anthropologists as well.
An unexpected ramification of this work is the development of techniques for detecting signs of life or technology on other planets, or extraterrestrial visitation on Earth. One facet of this work is the use of satellites for identifying structures of archeological significance.
Satellites will act as key pieces in examining human encounters with space overtime and the effect we leave through man made objects. There have been a number of satellites launched into orbit over the years, some including:
Satellites are just one example of several human traces we leave behind in, and out of this world.
The complexities and ambiguities of international legal structures to deal with these sites as cultural resources leave them vulnerable to impacts in the near future by many varieties of space travel. An outline of the legal situation was made by Harrison Schmitt and Neil Armstrong, both of them astronauts who walked on the moon as part of the Apollo program. The governing law on the Moon and other celestial bodies is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 based upon guidelines from experience in the Antarctic. Another source of ideas is the Law of the Sea. The Outer Space Treaty contains language stating that space objects remain under the jurisdiction of the originating state, and the civil and criminal laws of that state govern private parties both on the Moon and events leading up to such activity. State parties are to inform the public about the nature and result of their activities.
The later Moon Agreement of 1979 was signed but not ratified by many spacefaring nations. Schmitt and Armstrong believe this lack of ratification relates to disagreement over wording such as "the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind", which is taken as possibly excluding private activity, and objections to wording concerning the disruption of the existing environment.
A non-profit organization called For All Moonkind, Inc. is working to establish legal protections for archaeological sites in outer space. The entirely volunteer group includes space lawyers and policymakers from around the world. As a result of their efforts, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space agreed, in January 2018, to consider the creation of a "universal space heritage sites program.". Having created a discussion around preservation in outer space, For All Moonkind is now focused on preparing drafts of implementing regulations and protocols.
During a graduate seminar at New Mexico State University in 1999, Ralph Gibson asked: "Does federal preservation law apply on the moon?" That question led to Gibson's thesis "Lunar Archaeology: The Application of Federal Historic Preservation Law to the Site where Humans first set foot upon the Moon", to a grant from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, and to creation of the Lunar Legacy Project.
In 2006, Dr. O’Leary with New Mexico State Historic Preservation Officer Katherine Slick and the New Mexico Museum of Space History (NMMSH), documented the Apollo 11 Tranquility Base archaeological site on the Moon. Some legal aspects of this work already have surfaced.
Though its mission isn't primarily archaeological, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has imaged all of the Apollo landing sites as well as rediscovering the location of the first Lunokhod 1 rover, lost since 1971 (note: all of the U. S. flags left on the moon during the Apollo missions were found to still be standing, with the exception of the one left during the Apollo 11 mission, which was blown over during that mission's lift-off from the lunar surface and return to the mission command module in lunar orbit; the degree to which these flags are preserved and intact remains unknown).
Based on an idea by British amateur astronomer Nick Howes, a team of experts has been assembled to try to locate the Lunar Module of the Apollo 10 mission nicknamed "Snoopy", which was released during the mission and is currently thought to be in a heliocentric orbit. The Snoopy mission is encouraged by the 2002 re-sighting of the Apollo 12 third-stage rocket.