Right this moment, hundreds of miles above the Earth's surface, a fleet of 19 NASA satellites are silently orbiting the planet. As they travel along their individual paths, the spacecraft are constantly taking photos and collecting information that helps predict everything from impending hurricanes to aerosol levels in the atmosphere. But despite their importance, these satellites are easy to forget—because they're so difficult to see and imagine.
That's something NASA is trying to change. For example, in March it released an animated video showing the satellites' various trajectories. This time around, it's taking a more aural approach to the problem with the a seashell-shaped structure called the Orbit Pavilion. Located outside NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, the spiraling aluminum structure amplifies a symphony of sounds, each of which corresponds to one of the 19 satellites in orbit, plus the International Space Station.
The brains behind this 3,500-square-foot structure are Jason Klimoski and Leslie Chang, of the Brooklyn-based architecture firm StudioKCA. The brief was left extremely open, the duo explain: "They came to us and said we've got these 19 satellites and we want to somehow have people interact with sound and with the trajectories of these satellites in an interesting way," says Klimoski. "The satellites are collecting data streams. That doesn’t really lend itself to good representation, so we had to think of a new creative way to do it."
The firm worked with Shane Myrbeck, a sound artist and acoustic engineer at the firm Arup to assign each of the satellites its own sound—anything from water trickling to leaves rustling to deep tonal noises. Myrbeck then placed an array of speakers around the center of the space and programmed them to play the sounds in such a way that the visitors feel like they are zipping past them. Inspired by the way a conch shell conveys the sound of the sea, the building—made up of 72 perforated aluminum panels, each measuring six feet wide by 25 feet across—is designed to mitigate outside sounds and amplify the sounds of space.
Of course, those sounds are just sonic interpretations of the orbiting spacecrafts—which themselves are silent and largely invisible from Earth. The timing is interpretive as well: a satellite that would typically take 90 minutes to complete an orbit is condensed down to five to create a whirling, immersive sensation. So while the installation does give visitors a sense of satellite's trajectory, don't count on a completely accurate experience. The point, as Klimoski puts it, is to create a sense of amazement that these satellites are spinning in orbit all around us in outer space, even if we can't see them. "We wanted to make that world tangible," he says.
The Orbit Pavilion will be at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California until this summer (exact date TBD), when it will move to the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.