Where Do Satellites Go to Die? Dr Space Junk Explains It All in New Book

"Dr Space Junk vs the Universe" by Alice Gorman.
"Dr Space Junk vs the Universe" by Alice Gorman. (Image credit: MIT Press)

One person's space trash is another's space treasure — and that's definitely true for Alice Gorman, an archaeologist specializing in the detritus of spaceflight.

Gorman was always interested in physics but ended up an archaeologist instead, specializing in Australian indigenous heritage preservation. In her new book, "Dr. Space Junk vs. the Universe: Archaeology and the Future" (MIT Press, 2019), she shares the story of how she came to combine the two fields, studying spaceflight as an archaeologist. (You can read an excerpt from "Dr. Space Junk vs. the Universe" here.)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alice Gorman (Image credit: MIT Press)

Space.com: Your book is very grounded in your experience living and working in Australia. Can you talk about why that was important for you to highlight?

Gorman: That is where I do my space work and where I started. The first artifacts and places I got interested in were those that I knew were kind of in my back garden. And part of it, too, was I'm interested in decentering the whole space race, Cold War narrative and talking about other kinds of stories and interactions with space in that period. So, it was kind of a combination of what was kind of most natural for me to write about.

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I also wanted to deliberately choose different perspectives. Coming from a nation that traditionally has not been considered one of the spacefaring ones, even though we do have this incredibly deep history in space … I thought people in other countries would be sympathetic to that as well, because there's been such an increased interest in in the whole space thing in the last five years.

Space.com: One example of that Australian background is when you trace your investigation of the Aboriginal voices on the Golden Records placed on the Voyager spacecraft. Could you talk about that?

Gorman: For a space archaeologist, the two Voyagers are just artifacts of huge interest, because they demonstrate the geographic spread of human culture in the solar system and beyond the solar system, and people are just perennially interested in and obsessed with the Golden Records. When I saw that there was Aboriginal music [on the records], because my background was in heritage consulting with indigenous heritage, it immediately caught my attention. And I thought, I've got to find out more about this. But the stuff that's easily available, there's not a lot of detail in it. … 

There is this whole long colonial tradition where Aboriginal people and indigenous people are erased. They don't get given names. They're kind of assumed to be sort of generic members of a culture that is described by archaeologists and anthropologists as outsiders. So I thought, there's got to be a story here, and I have to find out what it is. … I realized that the tracks that were online as being the ones that are on the Golden Record actually were not correct. … There are cultural and symbolic implications of which music it is, and this alters the meaning of those songs that have gone out there. …

And I also did find the names of the performers. [They were Djawa, Waliparu and Mudpo]. … These aren't people who died long ago. Their families still live up there [on Milingimbi Island]. Maybe one day I'll actually get to go up and meet them and find out a little bit more. But for me, the whole process of saying, "These are their names and this is where they lived" — to give them a presence as individuals and not just faceless representatives of an indigenous culture — was a really important part of that research.

Space.com: What sorts of questions are you asking when you evaluate a mission?

Gorman: I want to know how big things are, what they're made out of, what the engineering heritage of particular missions are. There's also this quite common perception that everything designed to be sent into space is perfect, like they've made the optimal choices about kinds of technology used to design the mission. There's technological decisions, sure, but there's also all kinds of human factors … What interests me is looking at them as material culture, because that brings in the factors of the human choices and the social context. … I'm interested in all the complex social decisions that lead to a spacecraft being this way and not some other way, which is pretty much what you do when you're looking at artifacts from a site excavated on Earth.

And I'm very interested in the physicality, the textures and the surfaces and the scale. You often see pictures of spacecraft and you've got no idea how big they are really. Vanguard, a huge deal was made out of the fact that it was so little … the satellite actually being held in someone's hand is, for me, a really powerful image. And then you have spacecraft like the Voyagers that are really big, but you'd never know if you just look at a picture of them. They're tiny specks out there in the solar system, but in the human scale, they're actually quite large. …

Something else that's quite intriguing about these is that a lot of them are now practically invisible to us. We can't see them anymore. You're relying on reconstructing them from the information that's left on Earth and predicting what their current condition is and their future conditions just based on information that's already old. … They almost become a bit mythical, because you have to apprehend them from afar and from a distance in time, even though they are real things out there somewhere.

Space.com: Directly or indirectly, you write a lot about power. Was that a purposeful decision?

Gorman: Yes, I guess that was a purposeful decision. That's kind of a counternarrative to the other big story that space tells about itself, which is [that] this is just a natural human urge to go into space, it's like the fulfillment of a deep genetic destiny. That's just so common across the board … I suppose coming from a more social sciences, humanities background, the obvious thing is to critique that — so, well, is this really the case? And of course, it isn't really the case, and we know that. We've always known that.

Being situated in Australia — I mean, this goes for the U.S. as well — but when you're in a settler, colonial country, you have to incorporate discussions of power disparities in everything, really. … [There's] an ideal that space is retained for peaceful uses for all humanity, and we can't keep that unless we understand the power dynamics behind it. So you're right, I did want that to be part of the book. I didn't want to ever write something that was just a paean to the wonders of technology. And I'm using the places and the artifacts as a way to tell this counternarrative, which is a really important one right now, with the rise of the space billionaires and all of that stuff. We've got this whole other power story going on there.

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Space.com: One of my favorite sections is where you explore how Pluto is a kind of cultural landscape we've never quite been to. Could you talk a bit about that?

Gorman: It was such an exciting time. Every day, wake up, I'd check my Twitter feed for the latest photos, and just that transformation from that little pixelated picture, which was the only one we had before, into this really, really detailed landscape. And it made me think about how, since all of the Mariners and the Voyagers, we've gone from having these planets, which we just knew from astronomical observations and pictures taken on Earth and some in space. We've become really familiar with them. They've become incorporated into people's personal relationships with these planets and with the rest of the solar system.

We're seeing these otherworldly landscapes, which are similar — there's similar geological processes and planetary-formation processes — but [these worlds] are also different, and they have to be named. In that whole process of giving them names, people are creating a vocabulary to understand these landscapes, so they're drawing them into a whole sort of terrestrial and human kind of geography, and I was thinking about how planets become cultural artifacts. … We have to comprehend these places. We have to make them understandable.

They do become like artifacts that you excavate. You're in the trenches, you're digging away, you come across something that is an object that you can pick up and touch and that you record and put in a bag and analyze later on. But you may not know what it is, and you will only come to understand it when you undertake the whole analysis. I was thinking of planets like we're metaphorically excavating them in the process of sending these probes out and then attempting to understand what it is we're seeing.

Space.com: How did you begin thinking about when a spacecraft really becomes "dead"?

Gorman: The standard definition [of space junk] is something which does not now or in the foreseeable future have a function. And I was thinking, for some of these satellites, it's one minute they're working and then a week later, they're not, and then technically, they're dead, they're junk. But there's all kinds of gradations in between. Something just doesn't automatically slide into that junk category. It may have fuel left. It could still work. It's just that they're not working on that mission anymore. While it's called junk, the satellite itself may still be functioning and is potentially usable. I started thinking about that analogy with the human body, and soul. …

[I read about] the definitions of death in the human body and periods where it was actually quite hard to tell if somebody was dead or not, [such as during the Victorian era]. They had this whole thing of people waking up from the dead and this incredible terror of being buried alive. [There were] special mortuary chapels, where strings and bells would be attached to corpses so that if they woke up from apparent death, the bells would ring and someone could come and rescue them. … The definition of junk in orbit is not sufficient to describe all those different sort of liminal states that a satellite or spacecraft could exist in.

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And then, sort of by extension, thinking about these ideas, which I find really disturbing, that there is a human right to spread life throughout every available nation, the whole universe. … It's such hubris. It seems to assume that this is our right and this is something that's going to happen. … The thing that's never said in these grand statements about how human life is going to spread throughout the solar system and the galaxy, it's never stated that the obverse of that is that all of these things will die, and you will start to populate the universe with corpses.

It seemed to me when you frame things like that, it gives this stuff a bit of a different meaning. It isn't quite so triumphal. That's a very colonialist narrative, as well, going out on these frontiers and spreading human genetic material or whatever.

And, again, as an archaeologist, this is what we're working with. We're digging up human remains and the lives of people through the stuff they've created. You're kind of steeped in death and decay and abandonment in a way. Maybe that was a natural way for an archaeologist thinking about the kinds of traces that we might leave from these kinds of programs.

Space.com: What do you want readers to take away from your book?

Gorman: I want it to be that the heritage of space is a thing that connects us to all of these objects and places out there. And that the common heritage of humanity in space is all these artifacts and planetary landing sites and spaces. Because there's so many different ways that we can connect to them — we don't have to be an aerospace engineer, we don't have to be a citizen of a country that has an active space program. We're connected to all of these things, and that means that we have a right to have a say in what happens in the future.

You can buy "Dr. Space Junk vs. the Universe" on Amazon.com.

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.