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.


Rhinegold, Space Cowboys, and “Planetary Resources”

19 04 2012

The internet is alight with rumors concerning the James Cameron/Charles Simonyi/Peter Diamandis/Eric Anderson-backed superproject, not yet more than a speculation-frothing logo, to be announced April 24th:

These rumors go on to speculate that the venture will be a full-fledged asteroid-mining venture, sparked in no small part by the media alert sent by the company yesterday, which stated that it “will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.”

Let’s just say that’s where I was given pause.  Of course it’ll be extraterrestrial resources, (as if the name isn’t overt enough,) but I agree – they’ll likely be going after nickel-iron asteroid bodies and platinum-group metals, to start.

Why would I say so?  Well, I calculated those very same numbers 13 years ago.

The Rhinegold Project

Set the time machine back to 1999 for a moment.

There, at the University of Wyoming, in the back corner of an undergraduate physics course, you’d find a couple of young, idealistic astrophysics majors ignoring the lecture on frictionless surfaces and discussing the problems that brought us there: Dark Energy, (though it hadn’t been named that, yet; it was the High-Z Problem at that time,) Dark Matter, and Space Colonization.

Rhinegold Project logo. (Credit: Ben McGee/ITD)

Yes, one of these young scientists-to-be was yours truly.  The other was one of my best friends (and future jazz compatriot), Chris Hackman.  And it was there, in the back corner of that lecture hall, that I performed my first back-of-the-envelope calculations on harvesting the material in a single, mile-sized nickel-iron-rich asteroid.

On its face, the number was in the trillions of dollars.

I knew this was a rough number, an overestimate.  -But even accounting for flooding the terrestrial nickel and iron markets, the number was still (literally) astronomical.  It would more than pay for the cost of development, should only someone front the (we calculated) four-to-ten-billion dollars required to get the program running.

Literally trillions of dollars of harvest-able material is waiting, ripe for the plucking, between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, should someone only figure out how to get to it and bring it back.

So, we decided to try and lay the groundwork ourselves under a non-profit science research institute I founded in 2002, called the Institute of Temporal Dynamics (now retired).  We called the project The Rhinegold Project.

(Being music geeks as well, we liked the metaphor to the Wagner opera.  Like the legend, we planned to harvest the material and forge it into a ring – in this case, a Von-Braun-ian, artificial-gravity space station.)

I rallied friends of mine to the cause: Aspiring chemical engineers; mechanical engineers; other geology students.  We worked out orbital interception scenarios as well as in-situ harvesting architectures.  And as far as we could tell, we were amongst the first to approach the problem seriously.

Space Cowboys

Our Microgravity Centrifugal Smelter NASA proposal, ca. 2004.

Our project matured as did our degree paths.  By 2004, I’d switched to planetary geology and had taken the lead on an interdisciplinary college team to attempt the first in-situ asteroid-mining proof-of-concept for NASA’s KC-135 “Microgravity University” grant program.  Our team?  The UWyo “Space Cowboys,” and our project: the “Microgravity Centrifugal Smelter,” or MCS.

Ultimately, our project was not selected to fly – a devastating blow being that we lost to another University of Wyoming team testing their second year of a resistance exercise machine, something far less ambitious, in our opinion.  (We had a microwave reactor ready to go and breakthrough phase-transition boundary-condition chemical engineering showing that our low-temperature resource-and-matrix analogue asteroid would perform like a real one at lower “smelting” temperatures.)

The UWyo Space Cowboys then graduated and scattered to the wind.

Full Circle – Astrowright and the University of North Dakota

Well, my passions being what they are, I was never content to simply walk away from the concept of asteroid mining or MCS research.  A recent paper for graduate school at UND last semester assessed the validity of the “gold rush” metaphor commonly invoked by proponents of asteroid mining, and at my spaceflight consulting firm, we’ve been trying to find ways to fund more modern incarnations of MCS research.

Coming full circle to my back-of-the-envelope days, it looks to my eyes like the folks at Planetary Resources have finally found a way to identify and/or convince those venture capitalists who are willing accept the risk and take the plunge to go after an asteroid.  (In short, it looks like they beat me to it. *grin*)

The cost, as I mentioned earlier, will be truly astronomical.  However, the reward may be equally as great.

The good news?  The finding of my recent asteroid/Yukon comparison paper is that on the frontier, cooperative competition is necessary for survival, so it seems there is room enough for all.

The final analysis?  Perhaps with Planetary Resources breaking new ground in the resources market, others will be made aware of the tantalizing possibility that asteroid resource operations present and decide to jump in as well.

Maybe this is the start of the “21st-Century Gold Rush” many of us have been waiting for.

I can’t wait to see what these guys are all about.

H.G. Wells, Crichton, and Planetary Protection

22 02 2012

Much of the challenge of communicating scientific concepts to the public at-large comes in attempting to find ways to make ideas easily digestible.

When talking about human space exploration, the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life, or the recovery of cultural artifacts from non-terrestrial sources, the concept of planetary protection is key.  Basically, planetary protection stresses the importance of working to prevent the spread of biological contamination between worlds.

However, for those who are unfamiliar or who would prefer a succinct example to a rehash of the technical definition, allow me to take a stab at an explanation less esoteric:  Planetary Protection in terms of Michael Crichton and H. G. Wells.

As arguably two of the most well-known science fiction authors of the 20th Century, it seems only fitting that each penned a story that together provide planetary protection’s two worst-case scenarios.  [[PLOT SPOILER ALERT]]

In Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” a returning military satellite inadvertently carries with it an extraterrestrial pathogen, with fatal consequences for a retrieval team as well as a small Arizona town.  This is a prime example of the dangers of returning to Earth from an extraterrestrial environment, and why planetary protection measures are important for us.

On the other side of the coin, in H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds,” invading extraterrestrials, despite demonstrating an extreme level of technological advancement, are ultimately defeated by terrestrial pathogens due to their lack of planetary protection measures.

So, in short, (using Wells and Crichton as guideposts,) planetary protection is intended to prevent:

  • our being harmed by alien bugs
  • potential aliens from being harmed by our bugs.

To the point, the last thing we want to do is go to Mars searching for life, only to inadvertently kill it, or worse, track it back home so that it wreaks havoc on our ecosystem.

That’s it.  You can say it all between The War of the Worlds and The Andromeda Strain.  Planetary protection in a nutshell.

The National Space Exploration Administration

26 05 2011

Is a National Space Exploration Administration the future of NASA? (Hypothetical logo credit: Ben McGee)

I’m a convert.  Yesterday, Apollo astroanut, geologist-moonwalker, and U.S. Senator Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt made what amounts to one of the most daring space exploration suggestions to date:  End NASA.  -And I think I’m all for it.

Allow me to explain.

Dr. Schmitt testing NASA Apollo program field logistics. (Uncredited)

In a sweeping and devastatingly logical essay published on the “americasuncommonsense” blog, Dr. Schmitt makes a compelling case that NASA as a force for exploration and national growth has lost its way.  Irrecoverably.

Being the only scientist-astronaut to ever walk on another world, Dr. Schmitt possesses a unique credibility and vantage from which to make this sort of assessment.  He proposes that NASA and its administrative shortcomings be scrapped in favor of a new agency, which he calls the National Space Exploration Administration, or NSEA.

There is a precedent for this sort of rebirth or evolution, which Schmitt is quick to point out.  NASA itself was created as a combination of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics and Werner Von Braun’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency, (which was reponsible for one of the most ambitious space exploration initiatives, Project Horizon.)  Likewise, the U.S. Air Force was formed out of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

According to Schmitt, NASA’s climate activities could be cleanly adoped by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA’s space science activities could be neatly rolled into the National Science Foundation, and NASA’s aeronautics research and technology would go back to the coalition of national research centers from which they were originally derived, a recreated National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.

This, he argues, frees the new NSEA to do what NASA should have been doing all along – driving the human exploration of deep space and reestablishing American space superiority.  The straightforward mission of this new agency, as Schmitt envisions it, is as follows:

“Provide the People of the United States of America, as national security and economic interests demand, with the necessary infrastructure, entrepreneurial partnerships, and human and robotic operational capability to settle the Moon, utilize lunar resources, scientifically explore and settle Mars and other deep space destinations, and, if necessary, divert significant Earth-impacting objects.”

Finally,  this represents a clear-cut national space agency mission that (I believe) everyone who supports space exploration can wholeheartedly endorse.  -And, perhaps more importantly, having such a clear agency objective would end the space exploration/terrestrial science/space science budgetary tug-of-war that has chronically crippled NASA.

Check out the essay and decide for yourself.  I think it’s time to send our governmental representatives a phone call or an email and make them aware of this concept as well, so they will begin to ask the question, “is a NSEA the future of NASA?”

Xenoarchaeology Online

9 10 2010

I am excited to report that my article, “A call for proactive xenoarchaeological guidelines – Scientific, policy and socio-political considerations,” has been published online by the journal Space Policy as an in-press corrected proof as it awaits publication in an upcoming issue.  (I mentioned working on it previously in a post here.)

The thrust of the paper is that when you consider the galactic timescales and hazards we know to be in play against the evolution of alien life, we’re likely to discover evidence of life before we discover astrobiology itself.  Further, it’s only a matter of time before we identify suspected material evidence of astrobiological activity.  -And regardless of whether or not it turns out to be a real find, we should be prepared to investigate and evaluate it will the scientific rigor deserving of an actual find, with the foresight to successfully manage information verification and public dissemination.

The paper is a stab at highlighting the applicable scientific protocols, planetary pitfalls, and social snags a xenoarchaeological investigation might face in the hopes of stimulating discussion toward the development of a fully-fledged field of study.

Here’s to making it one step closer (academically, anyway) to the stars.  Feedback welcome.

UPDATE 11/2010:  The article has been officially published in Space Policy Volume 26, Issue 4, November 2010, Pages 209-213.

Leaving Hydrology, back to Spectroscopy

31 03 2010

On my way out of the central Nevada project area for the last time. 03.30.10

Well, this is again a tactical time of transition for me.  I’ve worked the last two years as a geohydrologist with Parsons in the deep Neavda wilderness performing hydrologic and meteorological measurements and analyses for the Southern Neavda Water Authority.  Tomorrow, due to budget cuts, is my last day.

I’ve been lucky enough to use this unfortunate (and terrifying) turn of events as an opportunity to shift back to the Nevada Test Site, this time leaning on my gamma spectroscopy experience.  I think a foray into Health Physics can only be beneficial to someone interested in working in an environment where high-energy radiation is one of the greatest threats:  Orbit. 

We’ll see.  I’m thinking of also taking this opportunity to engage in masters work, specifically using resourced-asteroid material as radiation shielding, which seems like a clever health physics/planetary geology crossover…

In any event, one can’t help but be retrospective at a time like this, and I’m hoping time will prove that having worked on the East-Central Nevada Groundwater Development Project, a project both so unbelievably vast (can swallow Rhode Island) and remote (far fewer than one person per square mile,) can only been seen as uniquely advantageous experience for a hopeful future field planetary scientist.

Wheeler Peak from Bastian Creek during a fairly substantial dust storm, 03.30.10.

Thus closes one chapter, and thus another begins.

A beginning is a very delicate time…

18 02 2010

Hello, and thanks for visiting my corner of the cyberverse.  I’m a nigh-thirty-year-old theoretical-physics-inclined geologist who’s spent his entire life with his eyes toward the stars and is playing a tactical gambit to reach them.

To start, let me make a note on the blog title.  “Astro” relates (obviously) to stars, celestial objects, or outer space.  “Wright,” in its archaic form, means, “A maker or builder,” and just happens to (conveniently) be part of my name.  (Think “playwright.”)  So, I see an “astrowright” as a person whose creations or work directly relates to space and space exploration.  -Someone I’d like to be.  And secondly, I’ve also had an interest in the physics of time and Einstein’s Relativity since high school, and I honestly believe that there is a way to get around the pesky barriers to time travel.

So, aside from including my thoughts on space exploration and the latest news and discoveries on the scientific frontier, it’s my intent that this blog will document my attempt to do two things:

1) Get off of the planet

2) Build a time machine

So, over the top?  Perhaps.  Sincere?  Absolutely.

Is anything possible if you put your mind to it?  Let’s find out.

`Ben Wright McGee

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