Moore to remember

Good evening. I’m the ghost of Patrick Moore, and I’m here to tell you about the Museum Of Outerspace Research Equipment, creating a rather fine acronym (MOORE), I’m sure you’ll agree. You may be wondering why you haven’t heard of this museum before, and the answer is very simple; I’ve only just invented it.

Where is it? Ah, well that’s the interesting part. You see, of necessity, it’s in space, because that’s where the engineering hardware we should be preserving for posterity is located. You’ll have seen famous ships, cars, and planes in museums, but, except for the Apollo capsules and the Shuttles, very little of our space heritage, (that’s to say, important engineering that actually travelled to space), is available for people of the Space Age to view. Part of the problem, of course, is that some of the most famous hardware has now de-orbited and burned up in the atmosphere. This is the fate that has befallen perhaps the most famous satellite of all, Sputnik 1, and many other iconic missions such as the Russian Mir space station, and the US Skylab. We have pictures of them, it’s true, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?

But the most significant difficulty is that most of the objects which we might wish to curate for future generations are very far away, and most of them are travelling very fast.

Moon Gazing

Some people, (e.g. the “For All Moonkind” foundation), are concerned to protect our heritage on our celestial neighbour, and as a lunar astronomer, I’m delighted about this. At least in the case of the Moon we have some records already. Images taken by the astronauts, and more recently by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, (LRO), show what was achieved by the US programme. So we know what we’re seeking to preserve in the MOORE.

We haven’t yet entered the era of commercial manned space flight to Earth orbit, let alone the Moon, but it appears to be approaching fast. When it does arrive, the Apollo landing sites will represent popular destinations, and the temptation to hunt for trophies to bring back to the Earth will be almost irresistible.

Designating these locations as “World” heritage sites, or similar, may help, but there are no Space Police to enforce the rules, and even if we do succeed in protecting the high-profile Apollo locations, what do we do about some of the other hardware on the surface of the Moon? There are the Russian Lunokhod rovers, for example, whose positions have been identified precisely in the LRO images, and in a less welldefined location are the remains of Luna 2 – the first manmade object ever to reach the Moon. Although it probably fragmented on impact, the remains of this satellite also mark a significant event in our exploration of space.

Similar questions arise concerning the research equipment we have placed on Mars, but at least in the case of these other celestial bodies we have some level of confidence that our hardware is, and will stay, where we put it. This is not true for some of the space objects that we have placed in orbit around the Earth, or have sent to other places in the Solar System.

Exhibiting Artefacts

Take the Hubble Space Telescope, (HST), for example. It is one of the most iconic missions in the history of space flight, and has made enormous contributions right across the field of astronomy, from planetary science to cosmology. If any mission deserves a place in MOORE, it is HST.

Current plans assume that when the attitude control system on HST fails, it will be “passivated” and abandoned to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. A more fitting fate would be to make it the first exhibit in MOORE, possibly repurposing the robotic technologies that were once considered for servicing the telescope to keep it in orbit instead.

Indeed, one of the first tasks of the curators at MOORE will be to decide on a higher, safer, orbital altitude for the telescope, which is currently expected to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime around 2030.

Orbital purists please note – HMS Victory is in a dry dock at the maritime museum in Portsmouth; various Concorde supersonic transport aircraft are on display on the ground rather than in the air. As these examples demonstrate, a museum exhibit does not have to be displayed in precisely the same environment as it made its name, and by comparison with these terrestrial examples, a move to a more stable orbit for HST is a comparatively minor change.

We should not procrastinate in establishing MOORE, because although the orbital lifetime of the telescope is short, the lifetimes of its attitude control gyros could be shorter still. If the telescope loses stability, the task of docking with it robotically will be much more difficult, and the chances that damage is done during the capture process is greatly enhanced.

We also need to understand what the term “curation” means for an object in space. It is a harsh environment, and radiation will continue to affect the materials of which any satellite is composed. In addition, all MOORE exhibits would be exposed to the natural micrometeoroid flux, and any object in Earth orbit is additionally at risk from man-made space debris. Active orbit management to provide conjunction avoidance is thus an essential part of the curation process, and a discussion will be needed about how to deal with the inevitable damage that will result from impacts by very small debris objects.

One reason for this is that the artefacts we’ve placed in space already offer an opportunity to research the effects of long-term exposure to the space environment, (both radiation and the results of repeated thermal cycling). The degradation of materials and the rates of micrometeoroid impact could be estimated via careful re-examination of the hardware on the lunar surface.

The larger the physical area we examine, the less our measurements will be subject to statistical errors, and for this reason even the tracks that the various rover missions made on the Moon may need to be included in MOORE.

Crucially, we know exactly when they were made, so any dust deposition on them will tell us about the mobility of the lunar regolith, and impact craters that now obscure them must obviously have been created in the last four and a half decades. The Apollo mission artefacts also offer a unique opportunity to investigate the effects of the space environment on bacteria. The bags of faeces that the astronauts left on the Moon could provide some fascinating insights into the ability of bacteria to survive in space.

The Ghost Of An Idea

I have focused so far on astronomical missions, but I’m sure there are plenty of other worthy candidates for inclusion in MOORE. If I were to consult the ghost of Arthur Clarke, I’m sure he would propose missions such as Telstar, which provided the first transatlantic communications and was famous enough in its day to have a pop song written about it, (which I could play on my xylophone by the way).

Arthur might also suggest Syncom 2, which was the first mission to reach the geostationary orbit which he popularised. Some of the satellites in that orbit now help to prove our weather forecasts, and others deliver satellite TV to our homes, so surely it is right to preserve the first example of this particular technology, just as the Science Museum in London treasures Stephenson’s Rocket as the first steam engine. I’m sure you will have ideas of your own for MOORE exhibits, and I’d love to hear about them via SpaceFlight magazine, which I used to edit.

There are a few issues associated with legal ownership that we’d need to solve since, under the Outer Space Treaty, space objects remain the property of the country that launched them. Perhaps appointing an international team of curators would address some of those concerns. Also, there is an emerging international standard that space objects should be de-orbited within 25 years of the end of their missions to mitigate the debris hazard, and we’d need an official waiver for our MOORE exhibits.

Finally, what purpose would MOORE serve if no-one could see the exhibits? That’s where modern microsatellite technology can help. In my conception, MOORE is an on-line resource giving access to data on each of the missions in the collection. What we’ll need is a series of small, high resolution imagers to rendezvous with our exhibits and create virtual reality fly-arounds that can be posted on the internet. We’ll need to be careful when manoeuvring in close proximity to them, of course; the last thing we’d want to do is collide with them or contaminate them with propellant. But can you imagine the pictures…? And how better to inspire the next generation of space scientists and engineers?

Ghost-written by Dr Stuart Eves

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