Garbage flying around the Earth

Space ‘junk’ music project points to invisible environmental problem

Image credit: European Space Agency

Real-time motion of space debris orbiting around the Earth is being translated into music through an innovative phonograph as part of Project Adrift that also allows people to adopt pieces of space junk and communicate with them via Twitter.

The installation by artists Nick Ryan and Cath Le Couteur aims to draw the public’s attention to the problem of space junk, which is considered by some experts to be one of the greatest environmental challenges facing mankind. 

“It's called Machine 9. It's a giant cylindrical phonograph, which transforms movements of space debris into sound as it passes directly overhead where we’re standing,” explained Ryan, a composer and sound designer, who created the space music-making device.

“It has 1,000 grooves engraved around it playing sounds associated with individual pieces of space junk. We are using a number of public databases, which tell us where each of the 27,000 known pieces of space debris is in any given moment. Once a piece of junk flies above us, the machine finds the groove and plays the sound.”

Said to be a cacophonic mixture of metallic sounds, rather than music, Ryan created the audio signatures of individual pieces of space debris – defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, collision fragments and other objects – using garbage found on Earth.

“Space debris as such is silent. It’s silent because it’s out of the earshot but also because it is in vacuum. We can’t hear it,” he said. “What I did was to ask the public to send me pictures and items of debris that they’d collected from their gardens and from their kitchens and from their bins, which reminded them of what they think space debris is like.”

Tin foil, old circuit boards, vintage camera parts as well as poetic objects such as feathers and pebbles have served to generate the recordings, which are laid out from left to right along the phonograph’s aluminium cylinder from low pitch to high pitch. Low sounds represent large pieces of space debris and high sounds small objects.

The artists also picked three individual pieces of space junk with a story behind that send Tweets to their followers.

“The three pieces of space junk we chose are Vanguard, the oldest piece of space junk orbiting the Earth since 1958, Suitsat, a Russian spacesuit pushed out from the International Space Station in 2007, which was supposed to transmit data but its radio transmitter broke, and finally Fengyun, a fragment of a Chinese weather satellite blown up by a missile into 3,000 fragments,” said Cath Le Couteur, who also created three short movies introducing the problem of space debris as part of the project.

“We built an orbital mechanic simulator, so we know exactly where these pieces of space junk are at any point in time. And we created little tags that say ‘I am currently flying over a country …’ and as our satellites fly over certain countries, the system sends out the Tweets. They also tweet about their life story.”

Fengyan followers will be able to witness the fragment’s demise in early 2017 in real-time as it is drawn back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn. Suitsat, which has already burned up, is only a ghost. However, Vanguard will keep orbiting the Earth for another 240 years.

“Ever since the space age began, we have been launching objects into space and lot of those objects have turned into junk and it has been accumulating over the time,” said Hugh Lewis, Head of Astronautics Research at University of Southampton and scientific adviser of the Adrift project.

“Everybody has a GPS in their smartphone, we watch weather forecast, we see TV broadcast from around the world and that’s all provided by satellites so if you see that those satellites are under threat from space debris then what that means is that every person on the planet that uses those services, they would see some impact on their everyday life.”

Lewis, however, says the problem is still far from a catastrophic scenario such as that painted by the 2013 Oscar-winning film Gravity.

“It’s one of those challenges that is far in the future,” Lewis said. “It’s not going to affect us, but it’s going to affect our children and their children and we have to start taking action now because it will only become more expensive and more difficult in the future.”

Engineers around the world are busy designing technology that could help clean the Earth’s orbit. Giant nets, harpoons, magnets or robotic arms could be used in future to capture defunct space objects and draw them back into the atmosphere where they would burn.

The Adrift project, funded by The Space an initiative backed by the BBC and Arts Council England will be put on public display in January 2017.

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