COLLISION: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Orbital Debris
and Mark Mantel Ph.D.
of science and the arts can take many forms. In this collaboration, a
"site-specific" interdisciplinary artwork and performance will
be created by using known data from orbiting space debris around Earth
to generate musical and visual information through a shared computer program.
We will then create aural and visual models-including a constellation
sculpture-of this transformed data.
years have been years of great concern for our environment. As the exploration
and conquest of space and space technologies grow, so does concern with
spent Earth-orbiting material. The overpopulation of space debris in low-Earth
orbit is now a very real danger to space exploration.
The precise number of human-made objects in space is unknown. The present (1993) NORAD/USSPACECOM catalog lists about 7200 objects. Use of detection methods more sensitive than those employed to create the catalog has produced dramatically higher estimates of the number of objects in Earth orbit. The smallest objects (paint chips, splinters of glass, and aluminum particles sprayed out by solid rocket motors) likely number 100 trillion. This chart is based on measurements which sample the environment and shows estimates of the number of objects in orbit of a given size and larger.
States Space Command (USSPACECOM) tracks and catalogs over 7,900 objects
in orbit. These objects range in size down to 10 cm in Low-Earth Orbit
(LEO) and down to 1m in higher orbits.
our interdisciplinary "site-specific" work COLLISION will focus
more attention on the issue of orbital debris and emphasize our deep concern
for progress and careful management of our near-Earth environment.
Fig. 2. Pablo
Picasso. Bulls Head. 1943
will achieve the goal of creating an orbiting constellation sculpture (Fig.
3) in space without any of the aforementioned negative effects, since no
additional material needs to be orbited in order to produce the desired
results. By utilizing orbital debris that is already in orbit to create
art, the problem becomes part of the solution; the concerns of the scientific
community are heeded; and the public's consciousness is raised concerning
the orbital debris problem.
The production of COLLISION will result in the introduction of the critical issue of orbital debris to a far broader and more diverse audience, and will represent the high technology and significant art for which the United States is known. COLLISION will extend the parameters of Earth-bound art creating a new paradigm based on the unlimited expanse of outer space.
Fig. 3. COLLISION, orbiting constellation sculpture, 1995. Computer simulation: The Aerospace Corporation
DESCRIPTION OF PROJECT
debris or "space junk" presents an opportunity to create an
interdisciplinary artwork of "found" objects from the over 7,900
pieces of tracked orbital debris now surrounding our planet. NASA Satellite
Situation Reports are used to track orbital debris on a daily basis. Using
the complex data on this debris, an exciting large-scale work that encompasses
music and visuals will be created. Since this information provided by
NASA is calculated to project the future position of the debris on a day-to-day
basis, one can create a work which, in an aural/visual sense, recreates
the position of this orbital debris on a specific date/time; hence the
notion of a "site-specific" work.
Since the invention of the computer and the first musical synthesizer in the 1950's, a very technical kind of composing, a music that devoted itself to the transformation of numbers (or data) into sound, has played a critical role in the development of modern concert music and electronic music, and has even shaped the evolution of electronic instruments. The interest in "plugging in" numbers-numbers that represented specific frequencies, amplitude, duration, etc.-have occupied the musical world in many cultures. In fact, in the early part of the century a movement referred to as "serial music," or a specific order of pitches whose numerical position in a sequence was manipulated, became increasingly more popular with composers. As we progressed through the mid-century these manipulations often relied on increasingly complex mathematical patterns. When combined with the explosion of the music synthesizer, a kind of music generally referred to as electronic music and/or computer music evolved.
As noted in the DESCRIPTION OF PROJECT, analogs will be created between the musical composition and the video composition of COLLISION through shared data and processing. The interest in sharing the exact data lies in the unlimited possibilities that the application of this data holds in both the aural and visual worlds. Decisions regarding specific parameters (linear movement for example) will serve as the point of departure in the visual and musical components of COLLISION. Also, decisions pertaining to those components of the Satellite Situation Reports (SSR) to be used will be shared. The numerical data from the SSRs can influence specific idiomatic instrumental functions, or it can determine pitch, timbre, attack and decay envelopes. An example can be seen related to pitch. The human ear is suited for hearing a range of 20 Hz through 20,000 Hz. A number, such as the inclination of a satellite might be 108.1 degrees, a musical frequency that is a high B natural (108.1 translated as 1081 Hz). It becomes possible to have a numerical parameter from the SSRs translate into musical durations, such as quarter-notes or thirty-second notes. It is also possible that a certain parameter (apogee and perigee, for instance) might yield long and slow-moving rhythmic patterns while others will create more abrupt and disturbing rhythmic patterns. It is easy to envision COLLISION moving between many levels of rhythmic interplay, obscured by nonrecurring, singular musical events.
In the world of the interdisciplinary, or interactive musical realms, this "number-crunching" kind of composition takes on an exciting flavor and avoids the kind of rigidity that has too often become the hallmark of purely electronic music. COLLISION is scored for live instrumentalists because the sounds of the acoustic instruments, as well as the presence of live musicians and the nuance that only humans are able to execute, will work best in the presentation we envision. These instruments are subject to digital signal processing during the live performance to enhance the aural and visual experience.
for COLLISION is scored for:
It is possible that in the event of a series of performances, each previous performance can be incorporated into the succeeding performance via tape playback. Each performance is a metaphysical attempt to reflect the specific correlation and position of orbiting space debris on that date. The final performance would project the feeling of a "sensory overload" reflecting the concern for the amount of orbital debris circling our endangered planet.
of the various disciplines (as exemplified by COLLISION) is not new. Opera
represents a beginning point for the first serious attempt of inter-media
presentations, combining music and drama.11 However, it is cited for another,
more critical reason. Late 18th Century and certainly most of the 20th
Century operas had thinly veiled, and more often blatantly overt political
implications. In a similar vein, COLLISION delivers an alert to the potential
hazards of orbital debris. COLLISION sets out to recognize the fundamental
need for exploration, and comments on the methods that have been used
in the past. As a global community, we have been less then careful concerning
the ecological impact of space exploration. We must be as concerned with
the careful management of our atmosphere as we are concerned with our
Earthbound environment. Our position here is very clear: the arts should
indeed support the exploratory ventures that our colleagues in the sciences
envision, and that exploration must be done with the least amount of waste
and risk possible.
REFERENCES & NOTES
1. David S.F. Portree and Joseph P. Loftus, Jr., Orbital Debris and Near-Earth Environmental Management: A Chronology (Houston, TX: NASA-RP-1320 1993).
2. Position Paper on Orbital Debris, compiled by an Ad hoc Expert Group of the International Academy of Astronautics Committee on Safety, Rescue, and Quality. March 8, 1993. p. 1.
3. Donald J. Kessler, Robert C. Reynolds and Phillip D. Anz-Meador, Orbital Debris Environment for Spacecraft Designed to Operate in Low Earth Orbit (Houston, TX: NASA-TM-100471 1988) p.1.
4. Satellite Situation Report (Greenbelt, MD, Goddard Space Flight Center).
5. See Portree and Loftus  p.85.
6. See Position Paper on Orbital Debris  p.16.
7. For an English translation of the "Creative Credo," see Victor Miesel, ed., Voices of German Expressionism (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), pp. 83-88.
8. Roger F. Malina, "Space Art: The Role of the Artist in Space Exploration" (Paris: International Astronautical Federation, 1989). This paper was presented at the 40th Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, 7-12 October 1989, Malaga, Spain.
9. CM-COMBO (Calculation of Miss Distance Between Objects), Developed by the Naval Center for Space Technology at the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C.
10. Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) micrographs were done by The Aerospace Corporation, Los Angeles , CA.
11. Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music, 3rd ed., with Claude Palisca (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1980) chapters XVII and XIX.
12. INTERNATIONAL SPACE YEAR Twenty-eight space agencies participated, including those of all the major space powers. The United States, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, and England, joined together to form SAFISY (Space Agency Forum on International Space Year). This coalition formed ISY planning committees to develop themes and general plans for a global celebration and other activities that extend into the next five years.
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