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It’s been decades since our last foray outside Earth’s orbit - but what’s next for humankind? P.O. Arnäs

Humanity’s next giant leap: our heritage in space is our future too

The United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is meeting in Vienna this week, and representatives of 74 countries will discuss, among other things, how to ensure space is maintained for peaceful purposes, and the long-term sustainability of space activities.

It’s a good time to reflect on how we, as the public, have contributed to the current shape of space, and the ways we can find to make space meaningful. To help us do this, let’s imagine it’s some time in the future when space travel is affordable.

In our spaceliner, we’ll visit a few of the most culturally significant space places in the solar system. These places are our heritage beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

Crowd-sourcing satellite science

Schematic of spacejunk in the Low Earth orbit. NASA

Our first stop is Low Earth orbit, from about 200 to 2,000km above the surface of the Earth. This is where the International Space Station orbits, and most of our Earth observation satellites. It’s also crawling with orbital debris or “space junk”. A collision with a piece of space junk can make a spacecraft fail or even explode.

But it’s not all industrial waste up there. Orbiting among the debris and the functioning satellites are historic spacecraft representing the origins of the space age. One of these pieces of space junk tells an important story of regular people engaging with space exploration.

Vanguard 1, a grapefruit-sized aluminium sphere with four antennas, is now the oldest human object in space. It was launched by the USA in 1958. It wasn’t the first object in space – that honour goes to Sputnik 1 – or even the first US satellite, which was Explorer 1 – but unlike those two, it is still in orbit, and may be for another 600 years.

Vanguard 1, pre-launch. NASA

Vanguard 1 was aimed at promoting the idea of space as a democratic and peaceful place, so involving other nations and what we’d now call “citizen scientists” was an important part of it. The USA asked countries like Australia to host tracking stations for the satellite. They also organised volunteer “Moonwatch” groups cross the world to follow the satellite with binoculars and telescopes, and gather data about its position.

There were several of these groups in Australia too. While Vanguard 1 has great historic significance, it’s also a testament to how amateurs got involved in space exploration from the very beginning.

Mixed moon messages

The moon has always been a huge part of human culture, governing the tides, providing light, and as the source of stories and myths about how the heavens and earth came to be.

But in 1969, how we view the moon changed forever. On one fateful day, humans set foot on another celestial body for the first time.

When the US Apollo 11 mission landed near the Sea of Tranquility, the pictures transmitted through the Australian Honeysuckle Creek tracking station. The first steps were watched by 600 million people across the world, frequently on televisions purchased just for this purpose. Now, we can watch them on YouTube.

A giant leap indeed.

The Apollo 11 landing site, Tranquility Base, is both an archaeological site, with the traces and remains of a unique human activity, and a symbolic site representing how we like to think of space: in the spirit of human curiosity and technological ingenuity.

Thanks to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2009, we’ve been able to get images from the satellite flying over Tranquility Base, and we can see the same view in our imaginary spaceliner. (The famous flag, alas, is no longer standing.)

An image of the Apollo 11 landing site captured from just 24km above the surface by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. You can see the remnants of their first steps as dark regions around the Lunar Module (LM). The Passive Seismic Experiment Package (PSEP) provided the first lunar seismic data, and the Laser Ranging RetroReflector (LRRR) allows precise measurements to be collected to this day. You can even spot the discarded cover of the LRRR. NASA

The Apollo 11 landing was presented and interpreted as an action taken on behalf of all humankind, but the planting of the flag is a classic symbol of colonisation. Under the terms of the 1967 United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty:

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

Yet clearly some would like to do just that.

Archaeological sites like Tranquility Base could be used in the future to demonstrate a prior or greater claim to the use of space resources – the “use it or lose it” principle. So these artefacts and material traces may have significance political implications in the future.

As far as we can ‘see’

Jupiter’s red spot, photographed by Voyager. NASA

But it’s time for us to move on. There have been flybys, probes and orbiters to most planets in the solar system, as well as a few asteroids and comets. We’re not doing too badly in the inner and middle solar system.

But as for the outer reaches, beyond Jupiter, we have barely made an impact. Only four spacecraft have ventured out this far: Pioneer 10 and 11, with whom we have lost contact, and Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Both are currently heading outside the solar system into interstellar space, if they have not already crossed the boundary.

What these tiny spacecraft mean is the entire solar system is a human place. Our senses, through these robotic avatars, have reached into places we can’t go ourselves. We have used the physical bodies of the spacecraft to imbue space with human meaning – and human culture.

On the Voyager spacecraft, we sent representations of human culture in case, against all the odds, someone of another species one day finds them. The spacecraft each carry a “Golden Record” with recordings of music and different languages. Included in the music are two Aboriginal songs, recorded by an anthropologist in the desert. Australia might only have a few objects in Earth orbit, and no space agency, but the culture of Australian Indigenous people is going to the stars.

Indigenous Australian music on Voyager’s Golden Record.

Space is our common heritage

At the moment, most nations using space resources follow the principles set down by the Outer Space Treaty, which, among other things, recognises

the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.

But this could change. Space is full of resources to be exploited, such as prime orbital territories, minerals, and water, needed for the future colonisation of the solar system and to support space-based industries.

The Moon Treaty, created in 1979, stipulates the moon and other bodies in the solar system should be used for the benefit of all people and all nations.

The Moon, unmined - for now. NASA

The Treaty promotes international sharing of resources and scientific samples. It also bans the use of the Moon for military bases or weapons testing. But, unfortunately, few of the major spacefaring nations have ratified the treaty, for a very simple reason: some do want to lay claim to the resources of space, and deny their use to others.

We all use space assets in Earth orbit for weather predictions, telephone and television, and global positioning systems.

We are stakeholders in space not just because it provides resources, but also because space development has shaped everyday life in the 20th and 21st century and these satellites and places are our history and heritage.

This heritage is the illustration that space does not just belong to spacefaring nations and commercial organisations. If it is important to us, it is also our right to have a say in what happens to it. And if we are not engaged in this process, then governments, the military and commercial enterprises will make those decisions for us.

Space heritage is what links us to our past in space, and to our future in the stars. And that future should be yours and mine to decide.
This article is based on a TEDxSydney presentation from May 4, 2013.

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