By Nick Ward
At the end of its life, the International Space Station (ISS), the longest inhabited human site off-world, will plummet 420 kilometers out of orbit and back to Earth, where it will sink to its final resting place at the bottom of the ocean.
Before this occurs, likely sometime in the next decade or so, an international group of archaeologists is working to record the rich material culture onboard the ISS from over twenty years of human occupation.
Led by Dr. Alice Gorman (Flinders University) and Dr. Justin Walsh (Chapman University), the International Space Station Archaeological Project (ISSAP) is the first-ever large-scale space archaeology project. Its overarching mandate is to document the ISS as a micro-society in a mini world.
“If we're going to be serious about space flight, we need to understand how spacecraft create places for human dwelling and interaction and how human interaction affects those dwellings in turn,” explains Dr. Shawn Graham, ISSAP collaborator and a digital archaeologist and historian in Carleton University's Department of History.
For Graham, this research is essential for understanding a brand-new facet of human experience.
“As far as we know, no other beings have ever left their home planet. We are documenting this not only to preserve the past, but to understand what it means to be human," he says.
"If you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, they usually say either an archaeologist or an astronaut." Dr. Shawn Graham
"If you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, they usually say either an archaeologist or an astronaut."
In addition to reviewing key procedures and policies associated with the ISSAP, Graham was asked to develop a digital data entry system to help researchers make archaeological sense of human activity on the ISS.
“I started cobbling together a system from existing platforms and coding. It worked, but since building interfaces is not something I do very often, it was inelegant – a total Rube Goldberg machine with levers and steam blasting out,” says Graham.
“So, I asked Alice and Justin if I could bring in my brilliant grad student Chantal Brousseau (History and Data Science), a recent Digital Humanities Award winner, as an additional partner. Within four hours, she had optimized my system for the important work that lay ahead.”
“When I was informed that the ISSAP team wanted to perform image annotation alongside the original data entry process which Shawn created, I figured that the ‘ideal’ situation would be to have both processes integrated as one,” says Brousseau.
To accomplish this, Brousseau used an open-source image annotation tool called VIA created by Oxford University’s Visual Geometry Group as a starting point.
“This software allowed for data entry and, of course, image annotation, but the user interface was a bit cluttered and occasionally confusing to use, and the code itself was dense,” she explains.
Brousseau’s solution was to rewrite the tool using Svelte, an open-source web app builder, keeping Graham’s original work in mind as a point of reference for what the ISSAP team wanted to achieve with their project.
Together, Brousseau and Graham have built an application capable of processing and analysing photographs of various spaces within the ISS. These snapshots will be dutifully taken by astronauts on an almost hourly basis, as part of their research duties while aboard the Station.
The application uses the photos as timestamps to study how these material spaces steadily change over time. It does this by identifying specific objects (e.g., a pencil clipped to a pegboard, or a pair of scissors attached to a tether) and tracking their movements across multiple photos. The software then pushes the data into a graph database, which archaeologists use to identify patterns developing across periods of time.
The tool also lets researchers annotate photographs for eventual machine learning – meaning that, eventually, Brousseau and Graham will be able to train a computer to analyse the images just like an archaeologist would. Ultimately, the data captured in this project will enable researchers to finally tell the full story of how humans co-exist within the built space of the ISS.
“NASA and the other space agencies have for years been tracking everything that goes up to the space station – they have to account for the weight when figuring out the fuel requirements of the launch vehicle, for instance – but apparently there are things that have gone missing up there,” says Graham.
"As someone who ultimately ended up becoming a historian, having the opportunity to be involved with a project that actually deals with life in space is something I never fathomed."Chantal Brousseau
"As someone who ultimately ended up becoming a historian, having the opportunity to be involved with a project that actually deals with life in space is something I never fathomed."
“It'd be neat to spot some of those… but more prosaically, there are the everyday objects of life on a space station: things for making meals, personal objects, items that help mark out a space as mine and thine," he explains.
"If humans are going to live and explore in space, then we'd best understand how the inhabited artificial spaces we live in help to create that spacefaring society.”
Graham is adamant that human heritage in space needs to be taken seriously and “can't be left to space-curious billionaires and industrialists” – a reference to Dr. Gorman’s research on how the growing chatter around lunar mining and colonization too often ignores the immense cultural value of the moon to humankind.
The data collection portion of this pioneering space archaeology project began on January 17, 2022 and is slated to run for about two months. For their part, Brousseau and Graham cannot wait to see what gets captured.
“I’ve always been interested in space, partially due to growing up with parents who loved Star Trek and partially because my dream job when I was young was to be an astronomer, until I found out you needed math and physics for that,” says Brousseau.
“As someone who ultimately ended up becoming a historian, having the opportunity to be involved with a project that actually deals with life in space is something I never fathomed,” she says.
“If you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, they usually say either an archaeologist or an astronaut,” says Graham. “This is a dream project that combines the two, and we’re excited to be a part of the beginning of a new field.”
You can follow the ISS Archaeological Project on Twitter at @ISSarchaeology.
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