Path to Mars #956: Narratives in Orbit

Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI)

Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI)

The third installment of Breathing Space looked at the area of Satellite Applications. This is an area of space I really enjoy teaching kids about – there is so much happening out there they can get involved with! It’s also a fascinating area of the industry for space artists, particularly any artist that uses sound or lighting. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

My cell phone is gradually dying, like a slow-burning star. At first it was the fast-draining battery, and then the keys started sticking. Now the ringer only sounds if it is set on silent. I am waiting for it to pass on, checking on it every hour like a servant at a dying master’s bedside. Which is fitting, considering the Latin word for servant is “satelles”, the root of the modern “satellite”, without which I wouldn’t have cell phone service at all.

Apparently, I’m not the only one orbiting my handheld device.

Satellite applications comprise a whopping 90% of space industry activity, and of that percentage, communications is by far the largest economic component, beaming in about $150 billion dollars US per year. Like most people, however, those broader economic factors aren’t my everyday concern. Like many freelance artists, I just want my phone, TV, radio and internet connections to function properly so I can work from home, creating art and discussing it online while being entertained and informed. While I am wholly dependent on satellites, I focus on the creature comforts and connectivity they produce, rather than the actual objects in orbit. However, satellite applications go far beyond the range of my cell phone and wireless router.

Besides communications, there are three other major categories in space satellite applications: Precise Navigation, Positioning and Timing (PNT), Telemetry and Remote Sensing. The most well-known example of PNT is the ubiquitous GPS system. Telemetry includes environmental data systems and search and rescue, such as the international COSPAS-SARSAT program. Remote sensing can be interpreted literally as gathering information from a distance, and is comprised of weather and agricultural tracking, disaster management and military intelligence systems. All of these applications, together with communications, makes up a vast sensing and information-bouncing network that spans the space age, from the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to today’s weather report.

Satellite art

For those of us with slightly more romantic or mystic sensibilities, satellite applications can be viewed as a way of getting a wider or deeper perspective. In other words, we send up spacecraft vessels (the bus) which contains a device (the payload) to either look at the earth from a distance, or to turn our gaze away from it, into the cosmos. Either way, the view is astonishing. So much so, that collections of images coined “satellite art” are making their way into galleries and publications. In November 2012 NASA released the visually stunning Earth as Art, a downloadable free PDF of satellite images of the Earth from space, including light outside of the visible range. The online galleries at EarthArtWorld, Newport Geographic and ABOV also feature works crafted from and inspired by satellite data, which at first glance appear to resemble rich abstract oil, watercolour, or digital mixed media paintings.

These very pretty works of earth-art appeal to a wide audience. It is no surprise that major space agencies and institutions have cottoned on to this type of space illustration as a luring mechanism for space education and outreach. The recently announced Copernicus Masters’ European Earth Monitoring Competition hits all of these buttons. The GEO Illustration Challenge Traces of Humankind calls for artists, illustrators and designers to create a work of art inspired by satellite imagery that shows the environmental footprint of humans upon the earth. Any adult from the European Union and the ESA member-states (which, incidentally, includes Canada) can participate. No doubt some stunning illustrative works of art will result from this, and future similar competitions. But what about artists who want to get a little more hands-on with satellites?

You can read the rest of the article at this link:


About Renate Pohl

Theatre Designer, Space and Stained Glass Artist, Writer.
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