Xenoarchaeology: Reality and Fantasy

3 05 2012

Archaeological evidence of extraterrestrial involvement with ancient human civilizations, as seen in the movie, “Prometheus.” (Credit: Fox)

Cultural Xenoarchaeology

For reasons I can’t immediately explain, (the recent rash of technical publications addressing the concept of “xenoarchaeology” or “non-terrestrial artifacts” nonwithstanding,) there is a tantalizing idea cropping up in a number of recent and upcoming films and television programs.  (See: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Prometheus, Ancient Aliens.)

This concept, simply, involves the discovery of archaic evidence of the existence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and/or evidence of physical interactions of ETI in Earth’s (and mankind’s) past.  All of this, arguably, might be lumped under the auspices of the protoscience Xenoarchaeology.

Perhaps this increase in popular consumption of the idea that aliens have been around longer than we have indicates a mounting social awareness of cosmic deep time and the possibility of extraterrestrial life as it is stirred together with our classic, collective existential questions: “Why are we here?” and, “Are we alone in the universe?”

However, these pop-culture expressions and depictions of xenoarchaeology stray pretty far afield of what “scientific xenoarchaeology” would actually look like.

Separating Xenoarchaeology Fiction from Fact

In most part built upon ideas originally popularized by Erich von Daniken decades ago, (and fictionally by H.P. Lovecraft before him,) these modern concepts invoke the assistance of ETI in the development of human civilization as the “gods” of the religions and mythologies of antiquity.  However, this view has long since been shown by archaeologists to be entirely speculative and lacking in any direct, physical supportive evidence, (i.e., it is pseudoarchaeology.)  This stands in contrast to the physical archaeological evidence that does exist to directly support the idea that we humans created civilization, agriculture, the pyramids, etc., without need of assistance.

While the idea of meddlesome, elder-brother or mentor-type ETI is admittedly thrilling, the concept as it relates to xenoarchaeology does not automatically become scientific and in fact differs significantly from the groundwork currently being laid out for scientific xenoarchaeology.

Allow me to provide a few examples of where reality and fantasy diverge:

  • The practice of much fictional xenoarchaeology takes place on Earth, whereas future scientific xenoarchaeologists will likely find their skills of most utility on other worlds during in situ investigations.
  • Fictional/pseudoscientific xenoarchaeology typically centers on terrestrial features of human civilization, (e.g., pyramids, temples, large-scale geoglyphs,) whereas proposed xenoarchaeological investigations will likely center on extraterrestrial features of a possible artificial nature on other worlds.
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology usually assumes the involvement of ETI with a given feature of interest and works from there, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will be required to rule out all other natural planetary, biological, and geological possibilities before hypothesizing ETI.  (In fact, ruling out features as xenoarchaeological in nature and disproving those making pseuarchaeological claims will probably be the most frequent uses of the existence of a true, scientific practice of xenoarchaeology.)
  • Xenoarchaeologists of popular fiction conduct investigations with their bare hands, whereas scientific xenoarchaeologists will primarily use remote sensing techniques, (satellites, robotic rovers,) to investigate/collect data.  (Or, if they are very lucky, they might one day even conduct work from within a spacesuit or biological quarantine facility.)
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology attempts to find evidence of ETI in terrestrial archaeological sites or artifacts, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will rely on the fact that ETI was not involved in terrestrial archaeological sites and artifacts in order to construct relationships and methodologies that will be useful in the evaluation of a potential site of completely alien/unknown character. 

I could go on, but hopefully the potential difference between xenoarchaeological reality and fantasy, (like popular depictions of most sciences,) has been made clear.

Why Xenoarchaeology at All?

When considering the concept of scientific xenoarchaeology, invariably the question arises: “Is there a need for xenoarchaeology as a science at all?” 

Admittedly, this question is a good one.  Pseudoscience aside, there are currently no pressing sites of xenoarchaeological interest.  Why, then, expend the effort?

Well, let me first point you to the established field of astrobiology.  This is a field devoted entirely to the origin, evolution, and possibility of extraterrestrial life.  Associated with the field are multiple related academic journals, societies, and even college degree programs. 

Astrobiology is legitimate.  Yet, we have yet to discover even the smallest extraterrestrial microorganism.  Yes – Astrobiology, the scientific study of alien life, is currently conducted in spite of the complete absence of the known existence of alien life.  The field thrives regardless.  Why?

Astrobiology thrives because its underlying assumptions are viewed to be scientifically sound.  Life occurred on Earth, and considering the pantheon of worlds being discovered around other stars, by all modern physical and biochemical reckoning, signs seem to point that it will only be a matter of time until we discover life elsewhere.  (By similar reasoning, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI] continues its vigilant watch for technological [radio] signs of life in the galaxy, and few nowadays write off the pursuit as being in vain.)

The assumptions underlying the scientific development of xenoarchaeology are, indeed, indentical to those above.  And further, given the ambiguity of the term “intelligence” and modern knowledge of many cosmic threats that can cause mass extinctions, (novas, gamma-ray bursts, asteroid impacts, etc.,) it seems even more likely that material evidence of extinct extraterrestrial life will be encountered prior to the fortuitious discovery of life itself while it is still alive. 

That is, if I were a gambling man, I would wager that xenoarchaeologists get an opportunity to evaluate ultimately definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life prior to astrobiologists.

Xenoarchaeological Relevance

In the final analysis, popular depictions of xenoarchaeology are useful in that they engender a more sophisticated (if not completely sensationalized) view of our place in the cosmos and the possibility of intelligent life in it.  On the technical side, considering the current absence of evidence of extraterrestrial life, xenoarchaeology as a scientific pursuit is equally justifiable to astrobiology and SETI. 

Further, I would argue that like astrobiology, taking the time to rigorously conceptualize a scientific field tangential to those that exist but centered in an extraterrestrial context will help us see ourselves from a clearer scientific vantage; this will invariably serve to enhance our understanding of terrestrial archaeology, anthropology, biology, and yes, even astrobiology.  (Developing an additional means to address some of the planetary pseudoscience out there, e.g., Martian Cydonia, can’t hurt, either.)

And who knows?  Perhaps our space exploration investigations are only a rover or two away from the discovery of that first Martian or Titanean burrow or petroglyph, which history will remember as a moment that literally changes everything. 

My view is that it’d be far better in the event of such a discovery to be proactive and have scientific xenoarchaeology prepared, (in at least a cursory sense,) instead of being reactive and leaving the scientific establishment scrambling to catch up. 

In this sense, perhaps science could stand to learn a thing or two from Hollywood.

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Boeing, Bigelow conduct CST-100 drop test over Nevada desert

30 04 2012

The CST-100 successfully touches down on the playa amid a puff of dust. (Credit: BLM)

Aerospace giant Boeing and commercial space-station manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management Ely District’s Caliente Field Office, conducted a relatively quiet spacecraft parachute drop test of Boeing’s Apollo-styled Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft this past April 3rd.  The event, attended by local media and several bystanders, occurred over a remote playa in Delamar Valley, located 50 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Aside from the fact that the test was a success and another commercial orbital spacecraft is that much closer to operation, (see SpaceX’s upcoming launch of their commercial spacecraft, Dragon,) most noteworty in my view is the fact that the event experienced a near-complete lack of media coverage.  To me, this hints at the exciting, implicit truth that an increasingly hum-drum attitude toward commercial space events, (oh, another private spacecraft test,) seems to indicate that the commercial spacecraft market is becoming firmly established. 

-It isn’t necessarily “news” anymore.  It’s (finally!) just reality.  Welcome to the 21st Century.

Personnel inspect the CST-100 following the parachute drop test. (Credit: BLM)

Using an Erickson Sky Crane helicopter, the Boeing-Bigelow joint test was carried out by lofting a test capsule to an altitude of 7,000 feet and releasing it, putting the parachute deployment systems through their paces under true field conditions.

Boeing Commercial Programs Vice-President and Program Manager John Mulholland called the parachute drop test of the CST-100 a “…tremendous milestone that brings Boeing one step closer to completing development of a system that will provide safe, reliable and affordable crewed access to space.”

Additional tests scheduled in 2012 include a second parachute drop test, a series of landing air bag tests, a jettison test of the forward heat shield, and a hot fire test of the maneuvering and attitude control engine.

The ultimate success of the CST-100 is strategically-important to Bigelow Aerospace, which has continually delayed the launch of their first human-rated space modules until comemrcial spacecraft like the CST-100 have been proven spaceworthy.  (Also, a preferred partnership with Boeing means the CST-100 is first in line to transport paying customers to future Bigelow space stations.)

For the complete set of photos of the successful test, click here for the BLM Nevada Flickr image collection.





Xenoarchaeology imagined: Lovecraft vs. von Däniken

25 01 2012

Human explorers discover an alien vista over an extraterrestrial-designed pyramid in the movie "Stargate." (Credit: MGM)

Clashing Pioneers of Xenoarchaeological Thought

The idea of alien archaeology, or more appropriately, “Xenoarchaeology,” is a mainstay of current science-fiction.  Hopefully, it may soon graduate to the realm of science-fact.  In this light, it is fruitful to consider a couple of prime examples of cultural influences and to discuss which amongst them leans more toward fiction or fact.

For many, the idea of xenoarchaeology practiced here on Earth is best exemplified by the works of Erich von Däniken, who in the 1960s and 1970s popularized the idea that many ancient human beliefs, artifacts, technology, and structures could be attributed to the influence of extraterrestrials in the distant or even prehistoric past, (known generally as the “ancient astronaut” hypothesis.) 

His landmark non-fiction work, “Chariots of the Gods?“, has inspired numerous popular stories, including the prominent films Stargate, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the History Channel television series, Ancient Aliens.   

Ironically, while admittedly fun to consider, von Däniken’s work to me strays far afield of the work any reasonable xenoarchaeologist might pursue.  In my opinion, as a non-fiction book the content fails to rise above anything other than science-fiction.  This is due to the fact that 1) the concepts presented are entirely speculative and/or circumstantial, 2) the work willingly ignores conventional archaeology and anthropology, 3) the work trivializes the achievements of ancient human cultures (i.e., implying that they “needed” extraterrestrial assistance and did not simply create vast works on their own,) and 4) because to my knowledge no adherents have yet to supply a sensical tapestry of evidence ruling out more conventional explanations to support their claims. 

Frankly, it seems the ancient astronaut proposal is simply a pop-cultural rather than scientific phenomenon.  However, in a fitting twist, it is from pioneering science-fiction nearly a half-century earlier that we find what I believe is a fitting xenoarchaeology archtype.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who may have served as an example for Lovecraft's protagonist geologist William Dyer, preps for a scientific measurement during his 1911 antarctic expedition. (Credit: Corbis)

H.P. Lovecraft and the Prototype Xenoarchaeologist

I must admit – I had H.P. Lovecraft all wrong.  

Before reading Lovecraft’s staggering 1931 antarctic research science-fiction novella, “At the Mountains of Madness,” last fall, I assumed he was a horror writer in the same vein as Edgar Allen Poe, with whom he is commonly referenced. 

This is a gross and possibly criminal mis-classification.

The story, written with shocking adeptness from the perspective of a research geologist leading an antarctic research expedition, was amongst the most grounded, compelling adventure science-fiction tales I’ve ever experienced.  It is certainly the most realistc terrestrial xenoarchaeology story I’ve ever encountered, which is doubly shocking given that it was penned nearly a century ago. 

Allow me to elaborate.

Whereas von Däniken’s work centers on objects of human history, Lovecraft reaches much, much farther back – demonstrating a unnervingly clear understanding of geologic deep time.  In “Mountains,” an interdisciplinary team of researchers, who are deploying drills to collect exploratory geological core samples, discover evidence of apparently artificial influence in ancient strata. 

This to me is a realistic xenoarchaeology scenario, as opposed to identifying surviving artifacts in historical human cultures that betray extraterrestrial influence. 

Then, geologist Dyer, after discovering the mummified remains of what it becomes increasingly obvious is non-terrestrial life, becomes a de-facto xenoarchaeologist as he and a graduate student are thrust on a rescue mission into the barely-surviving, non-Euclidian (!) ruins protruding from an ancient, uplifted antarctic range.  Deciphering the petroglyphs found there, Dyer reconstructs aspects of the ancient alien culture and history, leading him to attempt to ward off all future deep antarctic exploration.

What Lovecraft Got Right:

  • Age of artifacts.  To me, considering the potential distances and times involved with and available to interstellar travel, the odds of encountering evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence across a broad range of cosmic and geologic time is much more likely than something practically contemporary, (say, of ancient Egypt).
  • Scientific approach.  The research team in the story was composed of an array of scientists and technicians of different specialities.  Together, utilizing interdisciplinary thinking, they are able to tackle what becomes a clearly xenoarchaeological situation.
  • Bizarre/Incomprehensible technology.  While some of the petroglyphs are physically intelligible to Dyer, the architecture of the alien ruins defies conventional explanation (and even defies conventional mathematics!)  Advanced bioengineering is also alluded to, something completely foreign to human understanding.  Again, it seems true that artifacts of a truly alien culture would not be readily intelligible to ours.
  • Non-terrestrial biology.  Bipedal humanoid morphology is all-too-often invoked in science-fiction as well as ancient astronaut lore, which to me is nothing more than an anthropomorphological conceit.  The mummified beings in Lovecraft’s story are radially symmetric, vaguely vegetable in form, with a myriad of appendages and sensory organs.  -A wonderful exmaple of truly alien but biologically-sensible morphology.

So, there you have it.  A clash of the titans, as it were, in popular culture from a xenoarchaeological context.

I would venture, in sum, that from von Däniken those seriously considering xenoarchaeology might learn what not to do; From Lovecraft’s speculative “At the Mountains of Madness,” however, those considering xenoarchaeology can explore how pioneering xenoarchaeology might actually be achieved – with a healthy dose of pop thrill to help the concepts go down.





Looking forward to 2012

4 01 2012

Patch text: AD EUNDUM QUO NEMO ANTE IIT - "To boldly go where no one has gone before." (On my frozen-over field bag in the middle of high-desert winter fieldwork.)

At a year’s close, before looking ahead, one can’t help but become a little retrospective.  2011 was a big one for me.

Looking back, this year included a regular fleet of red-letter firsts:

The wheels, as they say, keep turning, and it’ll take me a while to process it all.  However, in the meantime, there’s 2012 to look forward to!  While many claim it to be an ending (of civilization, the world, etc.,) I find that endings only represent new beginnings, and here are a slew of new beginnings we all can look forward to in the coming year:

There are others, and this list is obviously biased, but my point is that in contrast to the drumming of the apocalyptic marketing machine, there is much to look forward to in the coming year that will set the stage for even more exciting events in 2013.

So, let the doomsayers have their fun.  The venturers will have the last laugh.

Cheers to a safe and prosperous 2012!





Red-Letter Day: NASA Astronauts wanted; NSRC spaceflight giveaway

15 11 2011

Today has been quite a big day for aspiring astronauts:

NASA Seeks New Wave of Astronauts

Prototypical astronauts Tom Stafford and Alan Shepard Jr. studying a mission chart, Dec 1965. (Credit: NASA)

On one hand, NASA finally opened another selection announcement for the next class of astronauts.  Until the end of January 2012, anyone with the grit, drive, and the moxie to put their hat in the ring will be stacked up against the best of the best for a handful of new astronaut positions.

Contrary to what many believe in the post-Shuttle NASA environment, what awaits these future spacefarers is more than just maintaining the International Space Station, showing up at press appearances, and performing (much needed) education public outreach.  …NASA is also hard at work, developing a new, Apollo-style spacecraft intended for deep space missions (Orion MPCV) while exploring the possibility of using it to visit and explore near-Earth asteroids.

-Not to mention that these new astronauts will also be on the cusp of helping to break open a new era of commercial spaceflight.  (For more information on the many developments there, see CCDev to get started.)

Not a bad time to get involved, all things considered.

Spaceflight Giveaway for Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher

The XCOR Lynx suborbital vehicle. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

As if that weren’t excitement enough for the day, on the commercial spaceflight front, the Southwest Research Institute announced a partnership with XCOR Aerospace to offer a free suborbital spaceflight to one exceedingly lucky attendee at the next Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference (NSRC)!

That’s right, a research seat in a spacecraft may be yours for the cost of attending and participating in the conference, slated for the end of February 2012.  The only obligations of the winner are to find their own way to the waiting spacecraft and create and provide an experiment for the trip.

The NSRC, the third conference of its kind, brings together commercial spaceflight industry pioneers, regulators, and both private and federal researchers to explore the opportunities and possibilities presented by the many private suborbital spacecraft currently in development.

For more info, visit nsrc.swri.org – and sign up!  (I can speak from personal experience: the conference last year was thrilling to those for whom spaceflight and microgravity research holds an appeal.)





Room with a (global) view

3 11 2011

When you gaze outside of your spacecraft, what do you see?

What’s it really like to be there?

With the advent of digital photography in the hands of determined astronauts willing to make time to steal moments to snap images like the above, now we can know. 

Have a look.  Blow the image up with a click.  You’re really just sitting there, looking out the window; A perfectly mundane act performed from an extraordinary vantage.

This reality represents (to me, anyway) one of the most inspirational aspects of 21st-century human space exploration: for the first time, the human experience of spaceflight is being not just communicated but also shown to those of us on the planet surface in real-time (via Twitter, for example,) to great effect.

I believe it is the responsibility of those who support and/or are professionally involved in space exploration to promote imagery like the above, for I truly believe it will be via exposure to this media that the next generation of planetary explorers will be engaged to careers in the student-starved sectors of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (see: STEM).
 
-And the more ordinary orbital space feels, not only will the goals of work off-world feel attainbale, perhaps the next generation will be even more compelled to see the world as a fragile, interconnected system and seek out the extraordinary in their experiences farther beyond…




NASTAR: Follow-up videos

1 11 2011

View of the Phoenix centrifuge simulator interior from the observation lounge.

For those interested in something a little more full-motion, I submit to you a quick post today pointing toward what civilian commercial scientist-astronaut training, (i.e., non-NASA) looks like.

Courtesy of Keith Cowing (of nasawatch.com, spaceref.com, and a phalanx of other space industry sites fame,) the video of our high-g centrifuge training at the NASTAR Center last May was recorded and uploaded as a live webcast (I’m second in the video).

NOTE: Because the video was recorded live, all commentary, hoots, hollars, and laughter is therefore uncensored and should be received in that light.

Click here for the archived webcast. (Be advised – the video is long!)

Each participant in the video takes three “flights” on a SpaceShipOne-style craft simulator built into a state-of-the-art centrifuge.  The first of these simulations is performed at 50% power, and the second two are at 100%, enabling trainees to experience exactly what the pilots of SpaceShipOne experienced on their way to space.

Video of the exterior of the simulator during a “run” may also be found here, while a view of the display inside the simulator during a run may be seen here.

It was a blast!  (I blogged the experience starting here.)  So, for the curious, enjoy the video, and many thanks to Keith for archiving this for posterity!








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