Saturday, September 17, 2011

Space junk floating around the Moon

The picture below is a computer image made by Zoe Star Wardlaw, aged 7.  She is the daughter of my friend Alice Wardlaw. She explains it in her own words:

My  picture  is  of  a  moon,  a  star  and  some  space  junk  floating  in  space. The space junk is floating around the moon. Around  the  moon  there  is  stars  and  space junk. The  moon  is  a  different  colour  to  the  others. I  did  the  stars  and  the  space junk  because  I  wanted  to  and  I  felt  like  it  and  I  just  wanted  to  because  I  felt  like  it.

The moon is VERY BIG in my picture BECAUSE I want it that way and I like it that way.

There are many things I like about this picture. The space junk is clearly in orbit around the Moon, and varies in size.  For some pieces, it appears as if we are viewing them on an angle, so there is a nice three-dimensionality to the picture.

I also like the fact that, for Zoe, space automatically contains junk.  She chose the Moon, not the Earth: she assumes that because the Earth is surrounded by space junk, so are all other celestial bodies in the solar system. This resonates with the way I conceive the space environment, not as a vacuum into which human material is interposed, but rather as a holistic entity.

It also seems a little odd to call orbital debris around the Moon 'junk', something I hadn't thought about until Zoe's picture. There's vastly less of it, of course, and it doesn't pose a threat to terrestrial commercial or military enterprises at present. I'd have to look up what is in lunar orbit, but I think of this space hardware, unconsciously, more as artefacts than junk, precious evidence of a past phase of lunar exploration.  This makes me think about how attitudes to space junk and space hardware change according to circumstances. When exactly did we come to think of stuff in Earth orbit as junk?  In my forthcoming Skylab paper, I talk about how Skylab's descent over Western Australia was co-opted into the application of the new Litter Act, introduced that very year as a result of a decade of the 'Keep Australia Beautiful' campaign. While concerns about orbital debris were certainly raised very early on, it would be very interesting to track how attitudes changed as the environmental movement gained momentum: a change from a colonialist, instrumental view of the world to one on which we have certain responsibilities.

So thank you, Zoe, for giving me food for thought! When Zoe is a famous artist (I won't insist that she stick to space themes), remember that you saw her work first on Space Age Archaeology.

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