Bring­ing space de­bris to light

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Dutch de­signer Daan Roosegaarde’s project brings art, de­sign and space de­bris to­gether

Be­fore it was of­fi­cially de­com­mis­sioned, En­visat—short for “En­vi­ron­ment Satel­lite”—was the world’s largest earth ob­ser­va­tion satel­lite. It was a high-tech piece of ma­chin­ery weigh­ing 8 tonnes, and was re­spon­si­ble for gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion on earth with the help of a mul­ti­tude of sen­sors.

But when the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) lost con­tact with the satel­lite in 2012, it was re­duced to a big piece of space de­bris that now or­bits earth along with thou­sands of frag­ments of space junk. Imag­ine an 8-tonne satel­lite float­ing in space, and the amount of de­bris it would cre­ate if it were to col­lide with an ex­ist­ing satel­lite or space­craft. There are presently no clear so­lu­tions to ad­dress the prob­lem of space de­bris.

But Dutch de­signer Daan Roosegaarde be­lieves it is pos­si­ble to find a so­lu­tion, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously cre­at­ing aware­ness about it. The Space Waste Lab—which was started in Oc­to­ber by Stu­dio Roosegaarde—is a “liv­ing lab” which brings art, de­sign and space de­bris to­gether to fig­ure out how the thou­sands of space waste par­ti­cles float­ing around the earth could be cap­tured and up­cy­cled.

The project has two phases. Phase 1 fo­cuses on an out­door in­stal­la­tion which uses high-den­sity LED beams and re­al­time track­ing in­for­ma­tion to vi­su­al­ize space waste at an alti­tude of 20020,000km. Dur­ing the in­stal­la­tion’s re­cent open­ing, the pitch-dark skies over Almere in the Nether­lands lit up with bright green LED beams as they homed in on pieces of space de­bris and fol­lowed their tra­jec­tory.

Phase 2 in­cludes a multi-year pro­gramme to cap­ture space waste and up­cy­cle it into sus­tain­able prod­ucts. The lab is sup­ported by space ex­perts from ESA, the knowl­edge part­ner for the project. An­dré Kuipers, a Dutch as­tro­naut and physi­cian, is also a part of the project.

Al­most ev­ery piece of de­bris is tracked by var­i­ous space or­ga­ni­za­tions around the world to make sure it does not pose any im­me­di­ate threat to other func­tion­ing ob­jects. The de­sign­ers and en­gi­neers at Stu­dio Roosegaarde used this track­ing in­for­ma­tion to de­velop a cus­tom­ized soft­ware that high­lights space de­bris in the at­mos­phere above us. “It’s a lot of cod­ing and track­ing but we got it work­ing now,” Roosegaarde says over the phone. The Dutch in­no­va­tor and de­signer says the Space Waste Lab was a log­i­cal next step af­ter work­ing on the Smog Free Project (ur­ban in­no­va­tions tar­geted at re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion) for the last three-four years.

While the liv­ing lab aims to cre­ate a new per­spec­tive on space waste with the help of the live LED beams per­for­mance, it is the up­cy­cling of space de­bris that re­mains an ex­cit­ing propo­si­tion. The ESA, Roosegaarde says, pro­vided the stu­dio with some sam­ples of space waste; the idea is to fig­ure out more so­lu­tions.

“The next step is where we are go­ing to cap­ture space waste and up­cy­cle it into a more sus­tain­able ex­pe­ri­ence… There are some ideas: like can we cre­ate ar­ti­fi­cial fall­ing stars as a re­place­ment for fire­works,” adds Roosegaarde. “No­body likes to clean up. It’s dif­fi­cult. The mo­ment we add a new value and creative di­men­sion to it, this cre­ates an in­cen­tive to see it as an in­gre­di­ent with po­ten­tial, in­stead of just a prob­lem. That is what is needed to clear space waste,” he says. The tar­get is to show the first re­sults from the project at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.

Like his pre­vi­ous projects, the live Space Waste Lab per­for­mance will travel to other des­ti­na­tions. Its next stop is Lux­em­bourg, which has its own as­teroid min­ing pro­gramme. Roosegaarde says the stu­dio is in talks with Hous­ton (Nasa) and also plans to get the Space Waste Lab to In­dia in the near fu­ture. “We are look­ing at Delhi or Ben­galuru,” he adds.

At Almere, which is a cul­tural hot spot in the Flevoland area, spec­ta­tors were wit­ness to an on­go­ing expo called “Space @ KAF” (on till Jan­uary) which cov­ered the wider con­text of space through ed­u­ca­tional talks and films. There were also work­shops on what we can do with space waste. For Roosegaarde, this is the way for­ward. “I think art and sci­ence need to work to­gether to im­prove the world. We can­not do it alone. Nei­ther sci­ence, nor art.”

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