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A Fragment, Moving in a Line, Creating a Hole

Curatorial Essay, Lucy in the Sky with Debris

Fragment [,]: A small piece of a larger whole. A text as a shard, broken off a sprawling project. A showcase, presented at a point of the project that feels like it’s just beginning. A way of placing a punctuation mark: here is where we are; a personal punctum, a pause.

Fragmentation [on uncertainty and possibility]: When a satellite collides with an object in orbital space (another satellite, a dislocated rocket booster, a drifting debris shield, a spatula dropped off the side of the International Space Station (ISS)), it smashes into thousands of fragments. A soundless explosion happening in the vacuum of outer space—experienced on Earth, at least for those tracking the constantly moving cloud of space debris that encircles the globe, as an outcome of a calculation of risk.

Couched in the language of ‘probability’, ‘plausibility’ and ‘possibility’, conjunction risk analysis is fraught with uncertainty. This is due to the “extremely coarse knowledge of the positions” of orbital objects, and thus it attempts to account for whether a collision is likely, and can/should action be taken[1]. Because of the high level of uncertainty involved in such calculations, the ambiguity surrounding risk analysis decisions complicates what might seem to be a highly technical and statistical question. The question of “Will the two objects collide?” thus is unhelpful, given the impossibility of a ‘God’s eye’ level of knowledge, as is the question “Would a satellite manoeuvre away from a collision to promote the safety of its occupied orbital regime?”, as any improvement in safety is taken to be desirable. As such, the most pertinent question, in the presence of ambiguous data, perhaps is “Should we take action to mitigate the conjunction’s risk?” It thus varies contextually depending on one’s definition of ‘high’ and ‘low’ risk.

At the same time, risk analysis relies on data that tracks debris objects to a reasonably high level of precision. The main task of tracking is undertaken by the US Department of Defence’s Space Surveillance Network, a global network of sensors that constantly monitor the space environment. In practice, anything smaller than a tennis ball (~10cm) is challenging to track accurately—whilst other tools are able to arrive at statistical estimates of objects smaller than this size, it isn’t possible to catalogue and track them. This data imprecision indicates that “uncatalogued objects are essentially the same as objects with a random state estimate and infinite covariance”[2]. These factors of low resolution, patchy information, and high uncertainty heighten the destructive possibilities of the orbital environment, but at the same time, hold imaginative gaps for artistic intervention.

How do we parse through the indeterminacy of randomness to draw out emergent and contingent points of meeting? In astronomy, conjunctions are when two objects appear in proximity in the sky. Such close approaches are observed from our terrestrial location on Earth as their orbits meet or cross paths. Despite being a purely perceptual and positional phenomenon, conjunctions have been moments of ominous significance—heavenly worlds meeting in cyclical patterns across centuries. The vast scales of deep time and space culminate in a brief and fleeting moment of divine order, to which meaning and logic is attributed. Two distinct objects moving on their individual paths through space. The smallest fragment, no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across—a flake of paint—hurtles in the inky blackness of space, smashes into a quadruple-glazed window of the ISS, and gouges out a tiny crater. A fragment, moving in a line, creating a hole.

[Fig 1.] Illustration from Johannes Kepler’s “De Stella Nova” (1606) depicting three successful great conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn plotted on the zodiacal circle. Public domain.

Fragmentary [on origins, imaginations, (in)visibility]: I can’t quite recall when I first encountered Isabella’s work, but it must have been somewhere on social media—intrigued by the pictures of her recent exhibition, I clicked ‘follow’. Thus unfolds a familiar story in today’s networked age, one that I’ve seen play out multiple times, where Instagram acquaintances become in-person friends, and in this case, professional collaborators. Over one midday lunch, we realised our interests and sensibilities resonated strongly—the sensitivity of making and weaving, deeply processual research, and surprisingly, the cosmos. The next day, Isabella messaged me: I’ve got a project in mind. Thus began a dive into the deep end of outer space, debris, junk, stories, patterns, maps, and an unravelling of a project into countless interdisciplinary pathways. This richly generative and synergistic process has taken us from studying how space debris has interfered in scientific readings of astronomers to ecological attitudes towards waste, space sustainability, and questions of scale and visibility; from the cultural heritage value of objects in space to ancient constellation cartographies and star stories; from noise, error and uncertainty in conjunction analysis to private satellite companies & debris removal start-ups; from risk management and insurance in space law to international and local regulations; just to name a few.

Space, we can be sure, captures the imagination. It evokes science fiction vistas of alien landscapes, frontiering narratives of commercial or industrial domination, and the elusive promise of off-Earth imaginaries when, not if, our own planet becomes uninhabitable. Yet, at the same time, the scale and distance of outer space defies our ease of understanding it. Some see it as the realm of technical and scientific data unintelligible to most; others find it easier to turn their eyes to the terrestrially tangible and grounded. We often forget that ‘outer space’ isn’t as ‘outer’ as we think it is—in fact, Earth’s atmosphere undergoes a gradual transition into space as the density of particles decreases. There’s no hard, definite altitude at which space ‘begins’—the provisional Kármán line, 100 km above sea level, is the closest notional boundary we have. Beyond this physical fact, we often also forget how closely entangled we are to what lies beyond Earth—how, only until recently, the patterns in the stars were vitally important to navigation, agriculture, religion, society, and beliefs.

At the same time, this isn’t a project about outer space. It’s about our relationship to our spaces of inhabitation. It considers the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial parallels in our attitudes toward pollution, waste, and environmental sustainability—be it landfill disposal, the Great Pacific garbage patch, or microplastic accumulation. Here, I draw on Rajji Desai’s research on the “false externalisation” that stems from the artificial dialectic between internal and external, outer and inner[3]. Observing a shift of control over space from military & national interests to corporate commercialisation in today’s space age, and with it the proliferation of sprawling satellite infrastructures that are privately-owned, Desai asserts that it has become nearly impossible to visualise the objects that orbit above our heads. On one hand, the infinite and “indeterminate boundlessness” of space renders satellites and other spacecraft invisible from public view, operating in domains and sites outside of our grasp and visual discernment. Additionally, its extreme geographical distance displaces them to marginal and peripheral zones. In doing so, it 08 normalises and depersonalises their occurrence, moving space objects outside domains of political and legal accountability, and thus translates to a lack of urgency in examining the consequences of the accumulation of space debris. Visibility thus becomes a key tool in rendering the idea of externalisation itself incoherent when considering the inextricable connections between earth and sky.

It is here where art can enter. One of Isabella’s favourite slides comes from astronomer John Kennewell’s presentation during her research trip to Australia. It reads, in large, blue, all-caps, serif font: “SOMETIMES MISREPRESENTATIONS OR DISTORTIONS ARE NECESSARY TO GET PEOPLE TO THINK ABOUT VARIOUS ISSUES”, against a computer-generated image of an orbital explosion. (We’ve been thinking about this a lot as we talk about what Lucy is trying to do.) Much of what exists in the popular imagination of space debris takes the form of digital renderings, ‘artist’s impressions’, or the 2013 science fiction film Gravity. Such images attempt to bridge this gap of visibility. Yet, a complicated relation between veracity and representation is present. At this scale of depiction, in order to make debris objects visible, they need to be shown at exaggerated sizes—otherwise, nothing would be seen. Slight distortions are thus required to convey the gravity of the concerns at hand to a wider public. At the same time, all acts of depiction are acts of translation.

In our research, we’ve been trying to gather material evidence of space debris—charred otherworldly SpaceX pieces fallen in Australia; re-entering debris burning up in the sky as flaming streaks; Apollo shuttles found in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Simultaneously, rather than being able to hold onto the debris objects themselves, we observe their (often violent) effects—a cracked chip in a window; a metal telescope panel hammered by hundreds of micrometeoroids; a shattered solar panel; a spiderweb of cracks emanating outward. These varied visual and material forms become important reference points as we not merely attempt to chart the story of space debris, but harness the artwork as an aesthetic and poetic vehicle to perform acts of translation and reveal underlying effects. It is an endeavour to complicate popular, corporate, or nationalist imaginaries of space, approaching them in provisional and context-sensitive terms; but also, about considering how artistic “distortions” can help to better visualise the unseen.

To think about the fragment is thus to consider how it is altogether different from parts of a whole. It is to break away from the dialectic of part and whole in the first place—a separation that does not necessarily constitute a negation, but rather affirms the importance of the rupture. To speak not just about the fragmentary nature of how we attempt to traverse this rift of visibility, but also to consider Lucy at its current fragmentary stage: signifying a necessary, momentary interruption (and irruption) to the ongoing becoming of the project, and to allow space for both withdrawal and approach to take place.

[Fig 2.] Controlled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere of the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). The destructive reentry on 29 September 2008 after it delivered cargo to the ISS burnt up the spacecraft and deposited debris in the South Pacific Ocean. Image: European Space Agency.

Fragmented [on multivocality]: An incomplete picture; varying and contradicting perspectives; optimistic, pessimistic, near apocalyptic. It was important to us when we began this project to speak to a diverse and interdisciplinary range of collaborators. Beyond the challenges of visibility and scale, discourse around the space debris issue take on differing nuances depending on where one is standing.

Some perceive it as further in the mirror than it appears: as the phrase goes, “space is a big place”. Some already palpably feel the effects of space debris on their day-to-day work: astronomical readings interfered, photographs photo-bombed, the night sky interrupted by moving trains of glittering dots. Others are more predictive: start-ups and companies working on space surveillance infrastructure and debris removal technologies, looking 5-15 years into the future. Some recognise the gravity of the problem, yet it is outweighed by more immediate concerns. Some are actively raising it for discussion and debate on international platforms. Yet others are falling behind the rapid pace of the space sector: regulatory regimes and legislative frameworks are “exceptionally fragmented”[4], reactively evolving rather than pro-actively established.

Beyond seeing it as a problem to be solved, we have also found it helpful to shift the framing of space debris to consider its place within alternative regimes of value. Space archaeologist Alice Gorman prompts us to reconsider space as a “cultural landscape”[5], where space “junk” is part of an ecology of man-made artefacts in a natural environment. Instead of being out of place[6] in relation to an idealised concept of untainted “nature” preceding humanity, space debris is in its natural place, within the complex assemblage of human and non-human elements that make up Earth’s orbital space that has been intractably changed by human actions. Simultaneously, she prompts us to consider the potential heritage value of these objects, as culturally significant artefacts of a heterogenous humanity, and weigh the collision risks necessitating their removal against leaving them untouched. Rather than treating them as dead, defunct, and harmful pieces of junk, it reframes space debris as something potentially lively, useful, and significant. To paraphrase Gorman, like the gods who don’t die as long as people believe in them, these satellites may not be as dead as they seem. How might we imagine their pre-histories, stories and afterlives? It is through these wide-ranging perspectives that we have been building a fragmented picture of the space debris issue.

Fragmentum [on pieces and patterns]: Our contemporary night sky is a jigsaw puzzle with 88 pieces. Why 88? I’m not sure either, but it’s oddly auspicious. In 1922, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) formally divided the night sky into 88 official constellations. One could perhaps point to an Enlightenment-era drive to rationalise and objectify the realm of constellations, mapping and filling the gaps in an all-encompassing cartography of the night sky. Each fragment delineating the clear, hard boundary of a single constellation group—each allocated a Latin name and official three-letter abbreviation. I was struck by the visual of these constellation charts—how the region of sky which each group of stars resided, as seen from a distinctly earthly point-of-view, was carved out with jagged edges and geometric boundaries, puzzle pieces that fully encircle the entire imagined celestial sphere—the limits of human perception bound to a terrestrial ground.

[Fig 3.] Official IAU constellation boundaries (top) and constellation figures (bottom) in galactic coordinates. Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio. Gaia DR2: ESA/Gaia/DPAC. Constellation figures based on those developed for the IAU by Alan MacRobert of Sky and Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg).

Yet, their official names belie their mythological and cultural origins— our sky is dotted with familiar animals (from doves to dogs), fantastical creatures (from Pegasus to phoenixes), tools of everyday use (from cups to compasses) and of course, people and characters (from Hercules to the herdsman). It reminds us that all constellations started off as “asterisms”— unofficial patterns of stars arising from diverse cultures through time and space—and that countless other asterisms, equally valid and valuable, are named and used by people all over the world. Asterisms are thus highly dependent on the situated perspective from which they are observed (the stars you see contingent on your location in the Northern or Southern hemisphere) and the environmental contexts which they emerge from. What might appear as a scorpion, is a fish hook, is a palm tree, is a great serpent, is a mother with baby. A deeply human inclination for pattern creation in order to make sense of the universe, drawing on visual associations from one’s social, cultural, and geographical milieu.

But back to the official IAU fragments. One can imagine a giant pair of scissors cutting along the edges of each constellation, pulling each fragment apart and breaking up the interlocking grid. There’s something strange about looking at a single flat fragment with the constellation marked on it. I think about our visit to the Science Centre Digital Planetarium, when the digital visualisation reversed and we moved rapidly outward from the vantage point of Earth. The guide humorously called it “the cosmic durian”, and I could see why. Stars only appear to be on the same plane due to distortions of distance and scale; when our viewpoint is shifted, we realise that they are, in fact, nowhere near each other. Thus, constellations only make sense from Earth; such visual alignments are purely perspectival, their groupings coincidental, and we connect them to form shapes and give them meaning and purpose. At the same time, each constellation region is meant to encompass all the stars that fall within it, not just the official group—whether visible or invisible to the human eye. The entire universe, neatly divided into 88 sections, radiating outwards from Earth in spiky zones of observation.

Frag-ments: One afternoon in the studio, Isabella and I cut up the sky. We wondered what it would mean to entangle these fragments, with their vast and rich encodings of both official and unofficial markings—projected shapes and lines of mythical figures in formal boundaries; the interweaving orbits of tracked space debris, forming an ever-tightening woven net encircling the Earth. An overlapping of two fragmentary maps. A shifting of the way we draw patterns in the sky.

Multiple translations take place in Isabella’s kinetic installation for the exhibition, Errant Stars. Charting the complexity of space debris’ present and past, it significantly takes its point of reference as the spatio-temporal moment of the exhibition, opening on 4 April 2024 in Objectifs’ Lower Gallery, Singapore. This becomes a key grounding point from which the installation scales outwards. The installation focuses attention on major space debris events in recent history. These include the intentional destruction of Chinese satellite Fengyun-1C in an anti-satellite missile test in 2007 (the largest fragmentation event in history); the accidental hypervelocity collision of active commercial satellite Iridium 33 and derelict Russian military Kosmos 2251 in 2009; and the clumping of copper dipole needles released in Project West Ford that was part of a Cold War experiment to create an artificial ionosphere of 480 million antennas, among others. These events spoke to us on various themes—we considered how the Fengyun ASAT incident spoke to the increasing militarisation of space and shows of power and violence; the Kosmos-Iridium collision addressed the atmosphere of heightened uncertainty and risk caused by the space debris issue; the Westford Needles evoked the extent of human hubris and desires for environmental control and dominance.

Isabella traces the lingering impacts of these events by tracking the movements of the debris created in their aftermath, travelling physically over the orbital space of the gallery at the time of the exhibition. The lines and streaks of debris across the sky, as they would be captured on imaging devices, are visualised on the suspended circular frames of the collision mobiles. The same pathways are then plotted against constellation maps, tracing the constellation regions which they intersect. These fragments are transformed to laser-cut metal pieces, which serve as anchoring base pieces via which conductive steel threads connect to the mobile frame.

Isabella here draws on the visual language of punch-cards as a now- obsolete data storage medium. Punch cards were used in jacquard looms, voting machines, census data collection, and early computers, and were a highly physical and tactile way of encoding digital data in the form of punched holes in card stock. Inspired by the act of “punching” and its resonance with the penetrative capability of orbital debris to puncture spacecraft, debris data is translated into holes inthe metal fragments through which the mobile is threaded.

Interwoven in these metallic nets are suspended metal bars and LEDs, which loosely correspond to the shapes of the official constellation from which the region was marked. Responding to movements and air currents in the space, the bars freely rotate and collide with the metal threads, closing electrical circuits which run through the mobiles. They evoke both astronomical conjunctions (close approaches) and debris collisions (risky meetings). The flickers of light in the darkness created in these coincident encounters, in a moment of brief illumination, evoke simultaneously the serendipitous experience of watching the night sky while suggesting possible moments of violence.

Recurring throughout the work are intersecting motifs of fragments, holes, and lines. These elements take on literal, symbolic, and conceptual meaning in relation to the space debris issue, and structure this publication you hold in your hands •

[1]  Hejduk, M.D. and D.E. Snow. 2019. “Satellite Conjunction “Probability”, “Possibility” and “Plausibility”: A Categorisation of Competing Conjunction Assessment Risk Analysis Paradigms”. Paper presented at the AAS/AIAA Astrodynamics Specialist Conference, Portland ME, United States, August 11-15, 2019. https://ntrs.nasa. gov/citations/20190029216

[2]  Ibid, p6.

[3]  Desai, Rajji Sanjay. 2019. “Afterlives of Orbital Infrastructures: From the Earth’s

High Orbits to its High Seas” in New Geographies 11: Extraterrestrial. Jeffrey S Nesbit and Guy Trangos̆ eds. Cambridge, MA: New Geographies Lab, Harvard University Graduate School Of Design.

[4]  “The New Space Race: Managing Disputes Risks in a Lawless and Limitless Environment.” 2023. Allen Overy. October 3, 2023. en-gb/global/news-and-insights/publications/the-new-space-race-managing- disputes-risks-in-a-lawless-and-limitless-environment. Accessed 9 March 2024.

[5]  Gorman, Alice. 2020. DR SPACE JUNK vs the UNIVERSE : Archaeology and the Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[6]  Following Mary Douglas’ theorisation of dirt as “matter out of place”, contingent on “a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order”. (Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge).

This essay forms part of the publication produced for the exhibition and research showcase of Lucy in the Sky with Debris, 4 – 28 April 2024, Objectifs Lower Gallery 1, Singapore.


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