Near-Earth Frenemies

The role of art in expressing the negative and positive impact of asteroids.

In the final moments of the stage show Fruithead by Sara Tilley, a pineapple-hatted clown expresses the human experience of dying. The lone red island on which the clown has been living folds up to reveal a shimmering silver surface beneath; the universe, symbolized by a figure clad entirely in white, folds the fabric over Fruithead to transform the red flat island into a gleaming silver asteroid, floating in the stillness of space. The clown is tucked away deep into this silver rock, no longer visible. Fruithead has returned to the universe, a reminder to the audience of where we came from and where we will return.

Our relationship with asteroids has never been an easy one. Those mysterious lumps in the sky are our forebears, our future, and arguably our greatest fear. They are also our kick-in-the-pants to stop watching reality TV and start engineering. As writer, inventor and futurist Arthur C. Clarke pithily put it: “The dinosaurs did not survive because of a lack of a successful space program.”

Classified control

One way of feeling more in control of this wild rubble is to get down to the business of good old scientific classification. Although there is still much to learn about asteroids, there are a few things we know so far. We know that they range in size from thousands of kilometers to nanometers. Asteroids tend to fall into the range between 1,000 km and 1 km, while anything less is classified as a meteoroid. Interplanetary dust can be millimetres or smaller. Asteroids and meteorites are further classified by their composition as stony, iron, and iron-stony. We also classify asteroids by their orbits in relationship to the sun and earth. Three special groups of asteroids cross the path of the earth’s orbit, and are referred to as Near Earth Objects (NEOs). “Amor” NEOs are farthest from the sun, “Aten” asteroids fall closest, while “Apollo” rocks trace a path between the two.

If you are frightened about potential NEO collisions, you may be soothed by the fact that there are global tracking systems in place. Organizations such as NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, Canada’s Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat), as well as the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness NEO Segment are all on the case. NASA JPL’s interactive training Keeping an Eye on Space Rocks and non-governmental organizations such as The Spaceguard Centre in the UK help to quelch public nervousness by communicating the impact of these NEO’s. ESA, however, is looking to a more interesting approach to public outreach than just the standard flash web popup training. It is potentially partnering with artist Katie Paterson to send a piece of a meteorite sculpture up to the International Space Station in 2014 via ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle Georges Lemaître.

Reworking history to transform the future

Paterson’s installation, Campo del Cielo (Field of the Sky), is currently on display as part of the Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing exhibition at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Kent, UK. As described on ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle page, the installation “features features a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite that has been cast, melted and recast as a model of itself, retaining its original form.” In reforming the meteorite through human craft and returning a symbolic portion of it to the space environment, the artist and space agency will not only raise awareness of what the Space Situational Awareness Segment is trying to achieve in safeguarding earth from potential collisions; they will also encourage the public to question humanity’s deeper relationship with time and space.

The release of Paterson’s altered meteorite into space is a curious parallel to Arthur Woods’ Cosmic Stones project, which proposes to transform earth stones through paint and return them to the space environment. This artwork is centred around the question “will humanity’s future be a stone age or a space age?” While Paterson’s meteorite hopes to move directly from the gravity-bound Turner Contemporary, Woods is looking at a graduated release: first into alternative microgravity environments (such as a parabolic flight or drop tower), then to space habitats (such as the ISS), and then to finally resting, gravity-bound once more, on other planets. The striking resemblance between these two projects is in the desire to express human control over the transformation and movement of these timeless minerals through a variety of gravity-bound and gravity-free environments. In a world where our lives could be brought to an end at any moment by the chaos of force and matter, we must do what we can to poetically guide these forces that are seemingly beyond our control.

Shameless space selfies

Outside of the artists’ studios and galleries, a more optimistic and commercial view of asteroids is building astonishing momentum, thanks to Planetary Resources’ firm grip on the power of crowdfunding. On June 30, the asteroid mining company concluded a bang-up kickstarter campaign which raised over $1.5 million to fund ARKYD, the world’s first publicly accessible space telescope. The campaign featured the use of photography not as high art, but as a marketing lure, gifting a “space selfie” (a digital image of the individual, captured in space) to any backers who pledged $25 or more.

The broad appeal of this photos-for-all marketing and fundraising technique reflects the large-thinking mission of the company, which proposes to mine asteroids for the purpose of furthering space exploration. They are not interested in deflecting asteroids, but rather in landing squarely on top of them to utilize their natural water and mineral resources and get farther into space. While it may surprise many people to know that the first planned mining mission on an asteroid is for water, it makes a whole lot of sense. Water is a vital resource required for human space missions, but is incredibly heavy (and therefore expensive) to transport off-earth. It is no coincidence perhaps that this soon-to-be first asteroid-mined resource was also the platform for the very first artist-as-social-mission-space-tourist, Guy Laliberte. Water is the symbol for life, even as we attempt to mine it from the same hurtling objects that threaten our demise.

There have been countless works of art created that attempt to explore our complex relationship with asteroids. From the film Armageddon to the haunting Asteroid 4179: Toutatis by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, these strangely lifeless yet terrifyingly animated pieces of the universe are at once a massive threat and our literal stepping stones out of the solar system. We will always be drawn to them, just as they are drawn to us.

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