Down to earth: Imagining satellites with sound

Conveying complex scientific ideas to a lay audience is difficult; making them seem interesting and relevant is something of an art form.

For decades NASA has commissioned artists to make its work more accessible to the public. Norman Rockwell painted a preview of the moon landing; a few years later, Robert Rauschenberg made lithographs celebrating the ambition and optimism of the space race.

Today, NASA’s Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory houses a creative studio (known simply as the Studio at JPL) with six full-time artists. Its output has ranged from a large-scale comet sculpture on the Brooklyn waterfront to brainstorming sessions that help scientists consider new perspectives.

Most recently, the team collaborated with architect Jason Klimoski and sound artist Shane Myrbeck, who works in Arup’s San Francisco office, to raise awareness about NASA’s earth-focused missions.

The critically important nature of the data streaming from the earth science satellites made them a logical choice for a public awareness campaign. “They’re kind of protectors,” Myrbeck said. “They can measure the difference in sea levels to a centimeter and changes in land to the inch. They do things like monitor the drought in California and figure out how the tracking of Hurricane Sandy went awry.”

After considering various strategies for presenting the earth observation program to the public, the team decided to create a 3-D soundscape based on the satellites’ orbits. “We wanted to represent their motion really immersively, and we chose sound as the way to do that because it’s something you can be enveloped in, but it’s also mysterious; it’s floating out there,” said Myrbeck. “It doesn’t explicitly say, ‘Here’s a picture of the satellite.’ It’s a way to have a more creative experience.”

Myrbeck created a composition (excerpt below; hear a longer version on his website) that incorporated a unique sound for each of NASA’s 19 earth science satellites. (In the installation, the sounds can be heard moving though space in three dimensions, reflecting changes in the relevant satellite’s positional data.)

After mixing the piece in SoundLabs in Arup’s San Francisco and Los Angeles offices, he designed a 3-D sound system that could be deployed in an outdoor exhibit space.

As the composition progressed, Klimoski developed a number of options for housing it. The team ultimately decided on a nautilus shape, “which alludes to the idea of holding a seashell to your ear to hear the ocean,” said Myrbeck.

In the completed structure, the Orbit Pavilion, the perforations in the aluminum shell provide a nod to star trails, creating a visual impression of swirling motion to accompany the sounds.

The installation will be live through August 25 on the pier at New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

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