The sounds of space junk

14 March 2017

Interview with 

Cath Le Couter and Nick Ryan, Project Adrift

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Machine 9: A metal cylinder which makes music out of space junk.

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Thousands of pieces of space junk are in orbit around the earth right now, silently hurtling through space. Project Adrift are a pair of artists, Cath Le Couter and Nick Ryan, who have attempted to give a voice to these bits of junk, with videos, social media and even music. Cath Le Couter explained why...

"Guys - I’ve got to tell you, I think my spatula has escaped."

Cath - I was researching another project and I came across this story of an astronaut (Piers Sellers) dropping has spatula in space in 2006 and it became a bit of space junk careening around the Earth at seventeen and half thousand miles per hour. And I found this image just really provocative, a very mundane kitchen instrument hurtling around the Earth and that image made me think "wow, what is this space debris?".

So I read up a little bit more and discovered in 1965 that another astronaut had dropped his glove in space and that too, for me, was just a very, very strong image. Quite a sad image you know, a glove, just orbiting around the Earth on its own.

I guess that’s what initially made me interested and curious about what was this world of space debris that I knew nothing about. And pretty quickly after that I discovered that it represented this very significant crisis and that there was actually a hundred million bits of junk circling our Earth.

When I first started discussing this hidden world with Nick Ryan, who's a sound artist, Nick was instantly fascinated with how this space junk was silent and how could he give voice to this junk? So he developed an electromechanical instrument that’s about one and a half metres long, it’s made of aluminium, and it turns, and into this long aluminium cylinder are a thousand grooves of sound. And every time a bit of space junk flies above where the instrument is, a little stylus hooks into one of those grooves and plays a sound.

The different sounds depends on the size of the junk and that will determine the kind of tone that you’re hearing. So a very small bit of junk has a very high pitch, and some of the really enormous bits of junk - there’s a piece of space junk called Envisat that’s the size of a London bus -  and if a very big bit of junk passes overhead then you hear a very deep tone.

The potential of this space junk is so incredibly destructive and yet some of it is extraordinarily beautiful, and some of it has the most wonderful stories behind them. A lot of the junk that’s up there, early satellites that were part of the very, very beginning of the space race in the early 50s. It’s like there’s a floating museum of our past space exploration travelling above us but, at the same time, these beautiful items in many ways are now threatening to destroy us.

We commissioned several fantastic writers to write the characters of the three bits of space junk we were most interested in and they wrote stories that were true for those bits of space junk, and developed personalities for those bits of junk. So Vanguard was the first solar powered satellite into space, the oldest bit of space junk ever. So it’s a very heroic, proud piece of space junk but it’s now starting to question its purpose in life. So it’s a bit depressive.

Suitsat is an old Russian spacesuit that was pushed out of the International Space Station in 2007 and it was fitted with a transmitter for real. It was meant to communicate with us on Earth but it failed, became a bit of space junk, and it burnt up in the Earth’s atmosphere. So for the purposes of Project Adrift, suitsat is a ghost and it’s travelling the exact path that it took when it was first pushed out of the station.

And Fengyun... Fengyun was born out of a very violent, deliberate explosion in space. The Chinese sent up a missile to blow up an old weather station and they blew it into 3,000 pieces, and it was the worst space debris event of all time.

"My name is suitsat. Alone in space I spiral around anything, making shapes in the nothing, cutting a line through nothing. But in the nothing: more and more sparkling things appear. Not stars: space junk. All this junk was flying past me at 17,000 miles per hour. This was what I was meant to speak about. All it could take is one more collision up here and future space exploration will become impossible."

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