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Bringing space debris to light

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

A picture of the high-density LED beams during the opening of the Space Waste Lab performance. Photos: Studio Roosegaarde
A picture of the high-density LED beams during the opening of the Space Waste Lab performance. Photos: Studio Roosegaarde

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 real-time tracking information to visualize space waste at an altitude of 200- 20,000km. 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.

A sample of space waste

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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