When students pursue an education in archaeology, they often imagine going to places like Egypt, Greece, China, or even diving into the ocean in search of sunken trade ships from years long past. Their hopes and dreams are based on old stories of early 18th century explorers and classic movies like Indiana Jones. However, their dreams are also grounded. But who could have predicted that archaeologists would someday leave Earth altogether?
That’s right, archaeologists could soon be headed to space. As wild as it may seem, advances into space archaeology are already underway, and archaeologists have started using the technology that could help us discover aliens on our own planet.
Sarah Parcak, winner of the 2016 TED Prize, is a true-to-life space archaeologist. Traditionally, archaeology utilizes ground penetrating radar (GPR) and hours of arduous excavating to search for tombs, tools, bones, and ancient cities. Her work, however, consists of satellite imagery primarily to track looting and to find pyramids hidden under Egyptian cities.
With her money won by the TED Prize, she will be creating an open platform site where everyone with access can aid in tracking this data. She’s turned her vital research into a fun game for everyday people, and potentially has created a new era of archaeology: bringing this profession drenched in history into the modern world. Although her work is still based on Earth, her equipment is in space, and it could be a vital key to beginning the search for extraterrestrial beings or water on other planets.
As noted in an Astronaut article from July, 2017, one of the keys to finding alien life might not be aliens themselves, but traces of life in soil samples and bedrock. By utilizing enhanced satellite imagery — potentially via the same method as Sarah Parcak — scientists could pinpoint the location of potential sites of interest. Once those areas are identified, they could launch GPR devices directly to the surface to get further data, and potentially unearth traces of organic life: whether that is water, micro-organisms, or larger fossils.
But GPR devices don’t always need to be touching the planet they’re observing. In 2005, research was conducted on creating a GPR satellite specifically for archaeological application that didn’t require contact with the surface and could survey the ground through radio waves. It wasn’t the first of its kind, either, as 1972 saw the first launch of a ground-penetrating satellite. Since then multiple satellites are currently in orbit that utilize a similar sound-based application, but focused on Earth. One such satellite, Nozomi, was launched by Japan in 1998 for a mission to Mars, but was ultimately lost.
More recently, a GPR device was designed and proposed for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) in 2016, named STRATA. Although the project was not ultimately chosen for the NASA mission, the Smithsonian highlighted the project and its potential to properly evaluate Mars. As noted in the feature on STRATA:
“Assessing habitability and aqueous history of a region on Mars are main objectives of the MSL mission. The STRATA instrument would use a 400-MHz impulse to define stratigraphy at a spacial resolution of tens of centimeters to 10-15 m depth. The application of GPR would focus on locating, recording, and assessing the history of aqueous deposition, as well as providing the context for other MSL instruments to assess the biological potential of the areas under investigation.”
If such an application ever does become of use to the Mars Science Laboratory, and water or biological life were ever found, space archaeologists could be soon to follow. Although many of these theories are based on “what if’s,” it’s exciting to think of the potential this technology that is used currently on Earth could have for other planets.
However, until that day comes, archaeologists on Earth such as Sarah Parcak will continue to protect historic sites by utilizing advanced satellite imagery. Archaeology may be the study of civilizations long past, but through the use of modern technology, it has joined the future.