There are more than 1,000 government and private satellites in space. A group of creatives from The Studio at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory along with a few other artists decided they wanted to translate the trajectory of some of NASA’s working satellites into a sound art experience. They assigned a different auditory signature or sound calling card to each satellite that represents what it studies and then created a system that plays the correct sound as the corresponding satellite passes overhead. For example, a satellite represented as the sound of waves is studying the ocean, and when its path is above the pavilion, the ocean is heard. Other symbolic sounds include wind moving a tree branch, a frog croaking and a human voice.
To experience this educational soundscape, a person must be standing inside a large, curved metallic art installation called The Orbit Pavilion at The Huntington Library in San Marino, CA between October 2016 and Sept. 2, 2019.
Dan Goods and David Delgado of the Studio at NASA JPL came up with the idea for this work and they partnered with sound artist Shane Myrbeck and Jason Klimoski and Lesley Chang of StudioKCA to bring it into existence. This is Myrbeck’s description of the project:
The piece is in two parts, each with one sound following the path of a satellite. One section demonstrates the movement of the satellites by compressing a day’s worth of trajectory data into one minute, so listeners are enveloped by a symphony of 19 sounds swirling around them. The other section represents the real-time position of the spacecraft: each satellite currently in our hemisphere will 'speak' in sequence, and when a sound is playing, if a listener points to the direction of the sound, they are pointing to the satellite orbiting hundreds of miles above us.
The data used in this piece comes from the orbits of 17 satellites and two sensors on the International Space Station.
Klimoski came up with the shape of the pavilion by remembering and reflecting on the experience of listening to a seashell by the ocean and hearing layers of echoing vibrations.
“I proposed making a big shell to hold the sounds of space … a nautilus shell to hold the sounds of satellites in space,” he said.
For Myrbeck, this collaborative, multimedia artwork honors the important work the satellites are constantly carrying out above us:
These satellites are all part of Earth science missions, studying our atmosphere, oceans and geology — they are helping us better understand how our planet is changing, and potentially how we can be better stewards of it. In that way, I see them as kind of sentinels or protectors.
The Orbit Pavilion is part of a Huntington initiative to collaborate with other organizations. It is called “Five” and it teams up The Huntington with five different groups over five years.
“The Library’s aerospace history holdings made this first collaboration with NASA/JPL a perfect way to launch the new initiative,” a press release explains. The Studio at JPL is an art and design workshop that aims to provide creative space exploration education. JPL is a research lab managed by Caltech for NASA.
This sound art project also brings to mind the idea of the mysterious silence of space. Because deep space lacks molecules, sound has nothing to vibrate -- there are no sound waves or noises that humans can hear. Space is often thought of as silent. Some roaming spacecraft have translated radio emissions into sound waves, with diverse results from celestial bodies like Jupiter and Saturn which can be from NASA heard here.