Is it art? Is it science? As a matter of fact, it's a little bit of both.
At 8:58 a.m. today, the UKube-1 satellite, made by ClydeSpace and the UK Space Agency, will be released into orbit 373 miles above Earth and remain there for 25 years to conduct a variety of tests. But what makes it unique is that it will also be bearing the first-ever satellite art piece etched into its side.
The whimsical work, created by iam8bit in Los Angeles, invites traveling aliens to stop and use the satellite as a charging station for their communicators, spaceships and other electronic devices.
“We've got some of iam8bit's artwork in our office, and it's quite techie and blocky and chunky, so it fit with what we were doing with the satellite,” said Craig Clark, founder and CEO of ClydeSpace in Glasgow, Scotland. “We had some spare space on the outside of the spacecraft, so I asked them if they would like to put some miniature artwork on the satellite.”
The company has made parts of satellites for 10 years and will be opening an office in Los Angeles within the next year. This is also the very first satellite completely built in Scotland, Clark said, though it will be launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
At first, iam8bit co-owners and creative directors Jon Gibson and Amanda White thought Clark's request was a hoax, but they were intrigued. They responded to the query and, after determining it was valid, decided to lend their talents.
In addition to being an art gallery, iam8bit is a production company offering services ranging from producing events for video game companies and studios to creating videos and films, as well as making and selling fine art prints.
“We are very into defining a context and building a mythos out of that context, so the context of satellite art would be how would someone interact with it,” Gibson said.
In a gallery, visitors can walk in and view art, but with the piece orbiting around Earth, who would see it?
“Certainly not humans,” Gibson said. “Alien visitors or alien invaders would be interacting, so we wanted to provide some whimsy and cleverness for when these so-called aliens either come to greet us or destroy us.”
Gibson and White shared many ideas before settling on their design.
“Part of the idea wasn't just the fun of it, but it was also a commentary, perhaps, on how connected and isolated humans are with their devices,” Gibson said. “Everyone's attached to their phones, tablets and desktops and we wanted to communicate that in a fun, whimsical way up in space. It's partly reflective of what's happening on Earth, but also outwardly presenting an ocean of humans being in on the joke.”
The UKube-1 is surprisingly small. It weighs around 10 pounds and can be held in your hands. It is a CubeSat, a type of satellite developed beginning in 1999 by California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and Stanford University to assist universities with space exploration and scientific research. But it's amazingly mighty, as UKube-1 will be demonstrating a number of different technologies, including cameras, random number generation from radiation particles in space, and measuring distant space weather using GPS cycles.
“It's quite complex because of the number of different systems we have on board. It's quite a complicated satellite,” Clark said.
Clark believes that, like computers, the trend in satellites is to go smaller.
For example, Planet Labs in San Francisco has been working with CubeSats and will have 131 launched by 2015. Space X and Google's involvement in space will also add other changes to the industry, Clark said. The only limitation on size is the amount of power that a satellite needs to perform its tasks.
No matter the size, Clark likes the idea of “satellite tattoos” and hopes to see more such art in space. Gibson agrees and muses that Virgin Galactic might someday take visitors to a space mall with the first art gallery in space — iam8bit, of course.
For now though, the question remains: Will any aliens understand what the satellite is if they come across it?
“Hopefully they do,” Clark said. “It would be a great thing. And if they do stop by and see our satellite, it will be a nice, friendly welcome for them.”
Continuing the fantasy, Clark said any aliens wandering near the satellite will know about the UKube-1's power and be able to take what they need from it, although they most likely would have a much better system to power their craft and tools.
“One would hope if aliens were intelligent and advanced enough to travel all the way to our planet, they would have their own version of Siri to translate our language,” Gibson said.