Category Archives: Archaeology of Space

Dreaming of Space

Nile_River_Delta_at_NightVirgin Galactic describes astronauts as “the world’s most exclusive club.” I know this because I recently downloaded the company’s brochure, and spent many happy minutes fantasizing about what it would be like to lay down $200,000 and take out a membership. Virgin Galactic, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is the space tourism company dreamt up by Sir Richard Branson, the former record-store owner who has racked up such a vast personal fortune that he is now ranked the fourth wealthiest person in the UK. Branson wants spaceflight to be a pleasant, zenlike experience—rather like a supersonic spa.

Banished are the days of adrenalin-infused terror when NASA strapped husky young farm boys to the back of faulty rockets. The Virgin Galactic journey begins in serenity in the New Mexico desert, in a spaceport designed by the architectural firm of Foster + Partners (the name says it all).   Read More.

Iron from the Sky

Serge Lebel’s  discovery of small meteorites in a 200,000 year-old site in France has got me thinking once again about the critical role that other such space debris has played in human history.   So I took another look last night at a wonderful paper that Robert McGhee,  a former curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization,  and one of the world’s great experts on ancient human cultures in the Arctic,  wrote about the  influence of the Cape York meteorite on Arctic history.

According to Danish metallurgist and meteorite expert Vagn Buchwald, the Cape York meteorite produced the largest shower ever recorded. Falling to earth in northern Greenland,  the ten known fragments littered a strewnfield measuring 100 km NW-SE.  The largest of the  iron-rich masses weighed 30 tons,  the smallest some 250 kg.

When Europeans first arrived in northern Greenland,  they learned of these meteorite chunks  from indigenous Inuit hunters of the region.   The Inuit regularly travelled to the fragments to break off pieces of iron, which they then cold-hammered into a host of immensely valuable tools, including chisels, blades, gravers and pegs.   The Cape York fragments were their sole source of iron, and they so treasured them  that they gave them names such as Ahnighito,  an Inuit word meaning “Tent”,  and incorporated them into their mythic tales.  (Ahnighito is now in the collection  of the American Museum of Natural History.)

Now here is where McGhee’s ideas come into play.  Archaeologists have long known that the ancestors of today’s Inuit originated much further to the west, quite likely along the coasts of the Bering Sea.  But some time in the 12 century A.D.,  these ancestral Inuit,  known as the Thule,  migrated swiftly into the eastern Arctic.  The big question has long been what drew them eastward so quickly?  Over the years,  researchers have proposed a variety of theories,  from climate change (the migration coincided with the Medieval Warm Period) to sharp increases in Thule populations.

But McGhee proposed a very different theory.  He suggested that the Thule hurried into the Eastern Arctic in order to lay their hands on a major source of  precious iron.   In all likelihood,  he suggests,  the Thule had earlier acquired bits of iron by trading across Bering Strait,  but this would have been a drop in the bucket compared to the wealth of iron in the Cape York fragments.  Moreover,  it seems likely that the Thule learned about this iron source from an another Arctic culture,  the Dorset,  who were lightly scattered across the region.  In McGhee’s  view, this knowledge would have been sufficient to lure some bands eastward.

If the Canadian archaeologist is right,  the course of Arctic history was altered forever by a hunger for iron,  and metal from the sky.

Definitely Not Space Junk

Image Credit: NASA/LOIRP

In an old, abandoned McDonald’s Restaurant at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California,  a group of space buffs are patching together and preserving a vital artifact from NASA’s glorious past:  the FR-900 Tape Drive. Only a NASA engineer,  I’m afraid, could have given such a critical piece of our collective history such a mundane and boring name.  I say this because the FR-900 Tape Drive is the only piece of equipment on earth that can play back the very first close-up images from space that humans took of the moon. These were shot by the NASA’s Lunar Orbiter spacecraft back in 1966 .

In the 1980s,  NASA made a stunningly short-sighted bureaucratic error.   It decided to give away all four of its FR-900 Tape Drives as government surplus to the first person who would cart them off,  forgetting, it seems, that these were the only devices capable of playing back the footage that its Lunar Orbiters took in 1966 and 1967.  One of the Orbiter photos in particular, a breath-taking close-up of the lunar surface,  was described at the time as the “picture of the century.”

Fortunately for all of us,  someone realized that NASA was blowing it.  Nancy Evans,  the co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System agreed to haul off the machines,  each of which weighed 1000 pounds, and she stored them in a barn in Sun Valley for several decades.  She desperately wanted to raise funds to digitize the images,  and in 2007,  she found two partners–Dennis Wingo at Skycorp Inc and Keith Cowling at Spaceref Interactive Inc.

Together,  the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project team has patched together two of the tape drives and is now in the midst of digitizing some 1984  images in the old McDonald’s restaurant that they’ve taken over.  Moreover,  NASA has now recognized the value of what it nearly threw away.   NASA researchers plan to compare the images from the 1960s with new photos taken of the moon by the next high lunar probe to be launched next spring.

I think what happened to the  FR-900 Tape Drive is a superb cautionary tale.  We now store immense amounts of data on very ephemeral technology:  DVDs,  computer hard-drives and  internet servers.   We need to be thinking now very long and hard about how to preserve this for the future.