When I get an invite to the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House to hear about ‘Space Junk’, I’ll admit it is not a normal day. Although excited to hear about a new project that blends art and science I am a little apprehensive and feeling out of my depth. I confess that I find ‘Space’ a little beyond me (if you will pardon the pun). The theories and ideas are often complex, the numbers are big, the concepts are hard for me to get my head around.
It was fascinating to watch the ‘Tim Peake‘ phenomenon and see how my own children suddenly took an interest in the basics of space life, sleeping, eating and … I will leave the rest to your imagination. Technology is allowing us to see this world beyond our world, to share and to interact in a way we could never have imagined even 10 years ago.
Knocking on the door to the Royal Astronomical Society I feel I am being admitted to the inner sanctum of knowledge and discovery. Only last week there was a piece on a large piece of ‘Space Junk’ that had landed in Myanmar http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-37946718 admittedly it was a pretty big piece. It is certainly not something that pioneering space programmes talk about, the impact they leave behind. You only need to do a quick search to realise that ‘Space Junk’ or debris has been an issue for years but it is not something that really comes to public attention.
It is not just large chunks of random metal floating around like Envisage (the biggest piece of junk, it’s the size of a double decker bus) that cause a problem, the danger posed by the smallest of ‘flecks’ can be seen in the chip caused by a piece of ‘Space Debris’ that hit the International Space Station in 2016. Project Adrift is trying to bring to the public attention that extent of space debris, to make us aware of the 100 million pieces floating around in space.
Cath Le Couteur, documentary film maker and Nick Ryan, composer and sound artist have approached this project with an innovative mix of film, sound, technology and science. Whilst I may have been unsure on arrival, Cath’s passion for the project is immediately engaging. She explains how she was caught up in the beauty, the loneliness and the deadly nature of a lost ‘spatula’. She told us about astronaut Piers Sellers, who dropped his spatula in space in 2006 while testing heat-tile putty on the space shuttle Discovery mission. The moment is captured brilliant in the short film that accompanies the Project. Le Couter was fascinated by this everyday object that became a deadly weapon, travelling at 27,000 km/h before eventually burning up in the atmosphere.
Ryan told us how he is drawn to giving voice to the soundless and the quiet. He was intrigued by these silent parts of our past orbiting the Earth, and worked on a sound instrument and installation to give ‘voice’ to the 27,000 pieces larger than 10 cm that are tracked by Nasa and the US Department of Defense. Ryan has created a large rotating aluminium cylinder called ‘Machine 9’ which has 1,000 sounds engraved along it’s length. The sounds were generated from ‘foley’ recordings of 250 pieces of ‘earthly debris’ collected by volunteers in the UK who were invited to submit pieces of discarded matter to represent space debris.
The cylinder uses live data as a ‘score’ – when a piece of space debris passes directly overhead, a live composition is played by eight motorised styluses. It is, quite honestly, a little bonkers but I love the way volunteers have been involved in the project. I love the idea of people collecting what they connect to space debris here on earth and then ripping it, bashing it, and tearing it to create a voice for their silent counterparts up in Space.
The Project is taken to a further, more personal dimension as they have created Twitter profiles for three pieces of ‘Space Junk’ that have their own unique characters so you can ‘adopt’, interact and follow them. You can find out more on the Project Adrift website but my favourite has to be –
Fengyun (the present – @FengyunAdrift) one of 150,000 pieces of debris created by an intentional explosion by China to destroy the Fengyun 1C weather satellite in 2007. Over a third of all space debris was caused by this one action.
@TinctureOfMuse Tincture Of Museum, I’m Fengyun 風雲 / space junk. I’ll @ you til I die / you unfollow (then I’ll @ the void, it’s OK)
— FengyunAdrift (@FengyunAdrift) November 18, 2016
There are short videos accompanying each so you can get a sense of their character – http://www.projectadrift.co.uk/#jumpadopt
On a day that began for me with a little apprehension, ended with me adopting a piece of space junk. It is a surprising and interesting project, a great way to highlight what is ultimately an environmental disaster and one that needs to be dealt with otherwise further space exploration will be at risk for future generations.
What really surprised me is I didn’t expect the project to be so beautiful, the videos in particular are really quite affecting. You can see a beauty to these lost man-made, silent, potential killers circling us. Project Adrift aims to make the isolated, soundless and destructive, personal, visible and audible. There will be an exhibition in February 2017 for you to find out more and in the meantime I highly recommend you adopt your own piece of ‘Space Junk’ – after all Christmas is not the time for being alone.
BBC News, 11 November 2016 – Myanmar debris: ‘Mystery object lands at Jade mine’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-37946718
Impact Chip, European Space Agency, May 2016 – http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2016/05/Impact_chip
Lost in Space: 8 Weird Pieces of Space Junk – Wired, 2009 https://www.wired.com/2009/02/spacestuff/