Sunday, October 11, 2015

Satellites are little knots of materiality in an invisible electromagnetic tapestry

Satellites go beyond the limits of human bodies to be our senses in the void. They are conduits of information in the form of signals in different wavelengths, mediated and managed by the hardware of transponders, antennas, modulators, processors, and data storage facilities. Without communication, they have no function, whether this is gathering data from the solar system or deep space to send back to earth, or transmitting terrestrial telephone and television around the planet. These signals are the real purpose of the hardware. Satellites are little knots of materiality in an invisible electromagnetic tapestry.

In the nearly 60 years since launch of Sputnik 1, the rara avis has become a veritable flock. There are over 23 000 tracked objects over 10 cm, and over 100 million particles less than a centimetre in size currently located between Low Earth Orbit and the so-called ‘graveyard orbit’, approximately 36 000 km above the surface of the Earth (NASA 2012). A mere 6% of these objects are operational spacecraft (ESA 2012). Their chronological range is from 1958 (Vanguard 1, the oldest surviving spacecraft, with its upper launch stage and a loose clamp) until the present time. In weight, the accumulated debris is estimated to be 6000 tons (NASA 2012). But I argue that this ‘space junk’ represents far more than just a risk or hazard to operating spacecraft and satellites, as it is regarded by space industry, or an all-too-familiar pollution problem: it is the repository of human ideologies and values – capitalist, communist, mercantile, colonial, gendered, scientific, environmental and cosmological.  As junk, it is the proper study of archaeologists, who excavate through what is discarded in the garbage heaps of history, to find the significance in what people consider to be without value.

(This is a passage I removed from a recently submitted paper, but I quite like it despite that)

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