Thursday, July 10, 2014

A magnificent obsession: cable ties in space

Yes, I know I am obsessed. But you'll all be convinced of the archaeological importance of cable ties once my first paper on this topic comes out. Ursula Frederick and Annie Clarke are editing a volume called 'That was then, this is now: contemporary archaeology in Australia' (published by Cambridge Scholars), based on a fabulous workshop held at the University of Sydney two years ago. I spoke about cable ties as the quintessential contemporary artefact, so ubiquitous in the modern world that no-one even notices them.

This paper is far more riveting than you may believe at this point, particularly the history of the invention of cable ties. I'll say no more here so as not to spoil the surprise.

In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of space-qualified cable ties. I was with a few people walking through the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre at Mt Stromlo last year, and of course could not fail to stop at this display. I think Roger Franzen thought I was slightly unhinged for wanting to photograph it.

Multilayer insulation blanket studs and cable ties (for attaching MLi blankets to spacecraft and minimizing the blanket-to-spacecraft conductance)

The blue colour is because the cable ties are manufactured from a radiation-resistant fluorine compound. More detailed descriptions of these materials will, of course, be in my forthcoming paper.

And the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre is being officially opened next week! Sadly, I can't go, as I'm giving a keynote address at the Victorian State Planning Conference. This is very exciting, as former Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Fraser is also speaking, and I very much admire his opposition to our current government's loathsome policies on asylum seekers.

I haven't finished writing my talk yet (no surprises there), so I don't know if cable ties will get a look-in. You never know, though.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Up, up and g'day: Superdoreen is Miss Galaxy 1982

I came across this fabulous artwork in some catalogue or other and immediately fell in love.

It's by Julia Church, a screen print on paper made in 1982, and it's in the National Gallery of Australia. There's so much going on it that I hardly know where to begin.

So we've got an Aussie chick superhero, flying through the air with her blue cape. Possibly she is also wearing red gumboots, and that may be a bathing cap on her head. So it's almost a little bit like swimming through space. She does have superpowers, after all, and swimming is the Australian sport par excellence.

Doreen is an old-fashioned name, redolent of the Songs of the Sentimental Bloke, but also a teensy bit bogan. Our heroine is a regular girl in the mold of the immortal Rak off Normie, like so:

She's a superhero, but she's also Miss Galaxy! Woo hoo! This of course makes me think of the Miss Universe competition of 1979, which was held in Perth around the time that Skylab made its dramatic re-entry. The fuel tank, which fell on Kalgoorlie, was exhibited on the stage of the pageant.  

One of my favourite quotes of all time is very pertinent here. Comedian and writer Kaz Cooke finds the very idea of Miss Universe intriguing, 'because, as its name suggests, people from other planets may enter'. 

For most women, this was as close as they ever got to space, being a bit decorative on the side. There were other space-related 'beauty' pageants: the Miss Guided Missile contest was popular both at the Woomera rocket launch site in South Australia and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US.

But Superdoreen is having none of this. She is 'Up, up and gooday!' (if you can read the speech bubble). This is a pun on the sunshiney "For we can fly, up, up and away in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon", a 1967 hit pop song recorded by The Fifth Dimension. 

These pissweak balloons aren't for the likes of Superdoreen though, nor randy gents urging her to find love among the stars. She boldly goes where no Aussie has been before, with her Miss Galaxy title, her blue cape, and her red bathing cap.

My hero.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Preview: Archaeology and Heritage of the Human Movement into Space

A new book on space archaeology is about to be released (August): Archaeology and Heritage of the Human Movement into Space, edited by Beth Laura O'Leary and P.J. Capelotti. It's based around papers from a session at the Society for American Archaeology last year.
My offering is about the kinds of data we can access about orbital objects and their cultural meanings. A key part of my argument is based around a brilliant photograph taken by Dr Marco Langbroek, a Palaeolithic archaeologist and astrographer, of a section of geostationary orbit. I look at what the spatial relationship between the satellites says about geopolitics, the spectrum landscape between Earth and space, and even go a bit of Deleuze and Guattari (this surprised me as much as I expect it surprises you).
Here's a taster:
Spectrum is both a driver of satellite telecommunications technology and an invisible ‘soup’ in which the spacecraft swim.  This makes it very different from sensory landscapes of human interaction, composed of visible light wavelengths, sound, and the molecular interactions of smell and touch.  It is truly non-human and robotic; our interaction with it can only be mediated by antennas and signal processors.
And there's much more where that came from.
There are many other fascinating chapters, and we're very excited about the book, which captures the state of the discipline 11 years after the 5th World Archaeological Congress in 2003.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Evolution, orbital debris, and Laika's ghost

Laika's Ghost is a short story by Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder. Gardner Dozois (I love you, Gardner, best science fiction editor in the world ever) included it in his Mammoth Book of Best New SF 25 (2012). Dozois' introduction says the story "takes us to a desolate future Russia haunted by ghosts of the Soviet past, where a game is being played for the highest stakes of all".
Don't worry, there are no spoilers. The following passage, naturally, struck me. One of the characters, Ambrose, laments:
Then when I was twelve the Pakistan-Indian war happened and they blew up each other's satellites. All that debris from the explosions is going to be up there for centuries! You can't even get a manned [sic] spacecraft through that cloud, it's like shrapnel. Hell, they haven't even cleared low Earth orbit to restart the orbital tourist industry. I'll never get to really go there! None of us will. We're never getting off this sinkhole.
In this scenario, human access to space has been closed off by a catastrophic space debris event, killing a vibrant space tourism industry, and with it dreams of Martian settlement. Earth governments or authorities - "they" - appear helpless, unable or unwilling to initiate a clean-up operation.
The last image is compelling. Ambrose paints the Earth as a sinkhole, a low energy point of stable equilibrium in a dynamical system, that we're stranded at the bottom of. How will we scale the gravity walls to emerge into space now? Outside is the danger of shrapnel, as if it were a WWI trench.
To my archaeologist's mind, another vision comes: the famous sinkhole site in South Africa, Swartkrans, where it was first discovered that our ancestors the Australopithecines were not mighty hunters kick-starting the evolutionary process to modern humans by cooking a few chops, (while defending the female-types cowering back in the cave from leopards), but were rather prey to the carnivores instead.
What is the archaeological signature of a culture that made it into space and then retreated? In this future scenario, Earth becomes Swartkrans rather than Olduvai.
A leopard sinks its teeth into a hominid cranium

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How I became a space archaeologist Part II

For long-time readers, I'm going to take up the story where I left it in How I became a space archaeologist. As you recall, I was working in Queensland when the idea of investigating the archaeology and heritage of orbital debris came to me one night while on my verandah looking up at the stars. Later that year (2002), I finished the contract I was working on and took up a position as Senior Conservation Officer in the Heritage Branch of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Central Queensland town of Rockhampton. After work and on weekends, I'd sit at my tiny desk with a dial-up connection and surf the web to learn about space. I made tables of spacecraft and launch dates; I read histories of space programs and trawled through sites like Encyclopedia Astronautica. And I became aware, for the first time, that Australia had a rich and diverse space history of its own. I was astonished by how little I knew of events that took place during my childhood.

In these early days, despite my lack of knowledge, themes that have since become dominant in my work started to emerge. Vanguard 1 and the Woomera launch site in South Australia quickly became part of my research pantheon. As my background was Aboriginal archaeology, it was hard not to also look at how Woomera had impacted on the lives of Aboriginal people. I thought about what it was that an archaeological approach could bring to the study of space exploration, and I thought about how you would apply Burra Charter principles to stuff in space, answering the question I had first posed myself back on the verandah of my Queenslander.

December approached: the month in which the big annual Australian Archaeological Association conference took place. I think it was in Townsville that year, and I had funding from the EPA to attend. The conference was a turning point. One of my cousins, Anna Morgan, was there. She made an important introduction. She had studied archaeology at James Cook University with Professor John Campbell. In his classes, she said, he had talked about doing archaeology in space.
What an amazing coincidence! But more was to come. When I sat down with John and talked about what I wanted to do, he informed me that there was a third person who was interested in space archaeology: Beth Laura O'Leary from New Mexico State University. Suddenly I had colleagues! And John was involved in organising a session at the 5th World Archaeological Congress in Washington DC the following year. Would I like to present a paper in it? he asked me.
It seemed the timing was right. I had about five months to prepare: to make my thoughts and ideas coalesce into something concrete enough to present, and to get enough money together for an overseas trip.
And so I continued to spend my weekends at the tiny desk, reading and thinking, and also learning how to use powerpoint. I don't think I had ever used it before this; the pictures I used for my PhD presentations were on overheads and slides. Soon it seemed that one paper wasn't going to be enough to contain all that I wanted to talk about, and I sent two abstracts in. One was about general themes for space archaeology; and the other - I think, I will have to try and find it, was about orbital debris. Both abstracts were accepted.
Now a more serious issue raised its head. Already, I was struggling to access the information I needed with the current incarnation of the World Wide Web, and in the library of Central Queensland University. I was doing this in my spare time, and it wasn't easy to negotiate leave to attend conferences that weren't strictly work-related. I would be taking leave to attend the World Archaeological Congress in April 2003. When I returned, everything would be the same. Was I serious about this research? I searched my soul and decided that I had never been more serious about anything in my life. So if this was the case, I had to accept that living in Central Queensland and working at an unrelated job was not going to further my research. I was going to have to leave.
This was a tough realisation, because I loved my life at that point. Working at the EPA was great; I had excellent colleagues, and I enjoyed the pace of the public service. I loved living in the beautiful coastal town of Yeppoon. I was presenting a world music show on the local community radio station, Radio NAG, and my radio friends were a delight and joy. Every now and then I would escape to Brisbane for a touch of city life. It was all pretty excellent.
But to make my vision of space archaeology happen, I would have to quit my job, leave Yeppoon, and take a leap into the unknown.
So I did. I submitted my resignation, effective from the end of March 2003. I packed up my house and put everything into storage, keeping only one suitcase, my laptop, and some books and papers. I booked my flights to Washington. I registered for the World Archaeological Congress. I worked on the two presentations. I thought about the future endlessly, and I tried not to think about the future.
For some reason, I don't really remember why now, I had decided some media around my papers would be a good idea. One of the journalists at the University of New England (where I was an adjunct) helped me put together a media release. It seemed to strike a chord. With only a few days before I left, the phone ran hot. I think I did around seven radio interviews on my mobile in just one day while I was running around like a headless chook trying to tie up all the loose ends.
Finally all was done. Almost everything I owned was in storage, and it would be seven years before I was able to retrieve it. The house had been cleaned and inspected. I'd had my last day at work, and a farewell party in Rockhampton at my friend Marianne's house. It was time to go.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Space Industry Panel in Perth: Recent Developments in Australian Space, 27 May 2014

If you live in Perth, and you love space, you're in luck. The Space Industry Association of Australia (in cooperation with CSIRO Australian Resources Research Centre), is holding its next forum in your beautiful city.

5.00 - 6.30 pm (followed by a reception)
Tuesday 27 May 2014
ARRC Building, CSIRO
26 Dick Perry Avenue
Technology Park, Kensington WA 6151 
*RSVP by 25 May 2014

Five luminaries of Australian space will be take part in a panel moderated by SIAA Chair Michael Davis. They are:
  • Brett Biddington, Biddington Research
  • Phil Crosby, CSIRO Australian Resources Research Centre
  • Roger Franzen, ANU Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics
  • Jeff Kasparian, Institute of Telecommunications Research, University of South Australia
  • Randall Wayth, Curtin Institute for Radio Astronomy
The panellists will talk about projects of local and national significance as well as recent developments in the Australian space sector. They'll share their views on the direction they believe the Australian space industry should be heading in, and the respective roles of government and industry in shaping the future of Australian space.
The website has more information about how to get there, parking, etc. The event is free, but you do have the register.
So get behind Australian space, WA, and get over to the ARRC in May! Tell 'em Dr Space Junk says hi!


Monday, April 07, 2014

Nerding it up at the cool end of town - Dr Space Junk at Nerd Nite Sydney

Last week I flipped over to our nation's sunny capital for a space policy workshop, then on to Sydney to talk at the Nerd Nite.

This was heaps of fun. I met new people, caught up with old friends, and got to have a warm and sympathetic audience for my ideas. No space junk this time - more astronomy and antennas. They had a lucky escape, though - I didn't get started on cable ties ......

No, I said nerding it up, not nuding it up. Shut up down the back there.