Space Archaeology?

Who knew that NASA did archaeology? Unless someone’s sifting through the sands of some distant planet for signs of ancient intelligent life, I’ve always thought of archeology as the earthbound realm of the Discovery Channel and maybe Indiana Jones. That is, at least until I read that NASA helped uncover lost Maya ruins in the Central American jungle. 

Remains of the ancient Maya culture, mysteriously destroyed at the height of its reign in the ninth century, have been hidden in the rainforests of Central America for more than 1,000 years. Now, NASA and University of New Hampshire scientists are using space- and aircraft-based “remote-sensing” technology to uncover those ruins, using the chemical signature of the civilization’s ancient building materials.

NASA archaeologist Tom Sever and scientist Dan Irwin, both from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are teaming with William Saturno, an archaeologist at the University of New Hampshire, to locate the ruins of the ancient culture. Saturno discovered the oldest known intact Maya mural at the site in 2001.

… Sever has explored the capacity of remote sensing technology and the science of collecting information about the Earth’s surface using aerial or space-based photography to serve archeology. He and Irwin provided Saturno with high-resolution commercial satellite images of the rainforest, and collected data from NASA’s Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar, an instrument flown aboard a high-altitude weather plane, capable of penetrating clouds, snow and forest canopies.

These resulting Earth observations have helped the team survey an uncharted region around San Bartolo, Guatemala. They discovered a correlation between the color and reflectivity of the vegetation seen in the images – their “signature,” which is captured by instruments measuring light in the visible and near-infrared spectrums – and the location of known archaeological sites.

My first thought was that if it’s possible to be an archaeologist without having to tromp around deserts and rain forests, I might start considering a new line of work. (Those mummy-related specials on Discovery and TLC inspire me.) I did a little searching online and found a bit more information about the research team and their research in Petén, Guatemala. Turns out, it’s still archaeology, so they still had to hack through the jungle — using satellite images to guide them — to “ground test” the data. They uncovered a series of ancient sites, right where the data and images predicted they’d be. 

So much for doing archaeology from a nice, air conditioned, indoor space — which I’m guessing were the conditions at the National Space Science and Technology Center, where Sever and Irwin conducted their space-based research before heading out into the field. Sever and Irwin can use satellites to lead them to ancient ruins, and I’ll wait for the same to beam their findings down to my living room.