Exploring the Cosmos by means of Radio Waves
We are now dealing more and more with the exploration and knowledge of the invisible. Whether exploring outer space, the brain, or the depth of the oceans and the Earth’s geology by means of radio waves and the broader electromagnetic spectrum, it becomes clearer that if we want to progress in our knowledge we need to embrace a new kind of cultural awareness, one based on phenomena which we cannot directly see and experience, yet strongly supported by scientific evidence. How do we internalize this knowledge made of scientific data based on the study of the electromagnetic spectrum and converted into sound and images? as visual or acoustic culture? or does this knowledge really generate a new kind of consciousness?
Daniela de Paulis, ‘Philosophy after Nature’ conference, Utrecht University, September 2014
Over the last six years I have been collaborating with a team of radio amateurs and radio astronomers based at the Dwingeloo radio telescope in The Netherlands, working on several projects using the Moonbounce technology. Developed after WWII by the US Navy for espionage purposes, Moonbounce allows sending and receiving radio signals from and to radio stations on Earth, using the Moon as a natural reflector. Since the late 50s, the technology has been widely used by scientists and radio amateurs alike for sending and receiving audio signals. When I approached the technical and scientific team at the Dwingeloo radio telescope, I had the proposal of using the technology for visual communication: the idea, which turned out to be an innovative application of the technology, generated a mutually beneficial collaboration between me, the artist, and the scientific team. I started implementing this pioneering application of the technology — which I call Visual Moonbounce — in live performances between the Earth and the Moon, for which radio waves are used as light waves. During each live event images are transmitted as radio waves to the Moon, they are reflected by the lunar surface and are received back on Earth with a delay of approximately 2.5 seconds. The Moon-reflected images appear slightly distorted after the long journey, the radio waves in fact become weaker with the distance, additionally the uneven lunar surface scatters the radio signals in all directions and only a small percentage is received back on Earth. During the process the radio waves carrying visual data are reflected and refracted against the lunar surface, just like light waves. Whereas light waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to the human eye, radio waves can be perceived only through designated instruments and revealed to the human observation by electronic conversion. While developing my artistic research at the radio telescope, I started using radio waves as a tool for sending visual thoughts to the Moon and back, thus exploring the Moon by intellectual reasoning. This process eventually lead me to questioning the philosophical possibilities of radio waves and the electromagnetic spectrum as a tool for knowledge of deep space, based on remote sensing. The Moonbounce technology in fact, as well as all radar based imaging, can be considered the first form of space travel as it extended the possibility of touching another celestial body by means of radio waves, decades before the launch of the manned and probe space programme. Although invisible to the human eye, radio waves are physical matter and their discovery and consequent exploitation over the last century has had an enormous impact on the advancement of human knowledge. Serbian-American physicist Nikola Tesla envisioned the philosophical and scientific importance of the electromagnetic spectrum as an instrument for deeper knowledge, a knowledge which is formed not anymore on direct sensory perception but on intellectual reasoning. In the XXI Century the advancement of knowledge in Cosmology and Astrophysics has become highly dependent on the interpretation of data retrieved by scientific instruments analyzing the electromagnetic spectrum: whether studying the chemical composition of celestial bodies or the origin of the Universe, scientists rely on light and radio emissions — amongst others — to understand the invisible and the untouchable.
As part of my research on Visual Moonbounce, I have been working on a series of installations where iconic images from the history of Space science have been transmitted to the Moon and back for several times, until the image disappeared into complete noise. The gradual decaying of the image by the same technological process with which it was created, uncovers the intrinsic nature of the image itself, constructed according to a scientific methodology rather than a tangible and sensory feedback.
‘The Blue Marble’ was the first historical photo I used. Taken on the 7 December 1972, during the last manned lunar mission, at a distance of about 45,000 kilometres, ‘The Blue Marble’ is a famous photograph of the Earth and possibly the most widely distributed photo in existence.
Shot originally upside-down, NASA flipped the original picture before publishing it, placing Antarctica at the bottom as expected by the general public.
‘The Blue Marble’ is part of a series of images of the Earth seen from Space that helped changing the perception of our planet, in fact the photo, which was first published in ‘LIFE’ magazine in 1972, soon became the symbol for an urgent call to a greater ecological awareness. In 2014 I used the photograph as part of an installation, for which it was sent to the Moon from a radio station in Italy and received back at the Dwingeloo radio telescope in the Netherlands for eleven times in a sequence, until eventually the image faded away. I presented the result as a sequence of photographic prints merged together into a linear display which highlighted the gradual technological and iconographic decay of the original photo.
I am currently working with other Space science images that had a cultural impact on the history of humanity by showing our position in the Cosmos and the morphology of other planets in the Solar System, thus reframing the perception of our civilization and geographical belonging.
Scientific images are now becoming cultural icons, as much as artistic ones. In 2013 the NASA Curiosity rover drilled a hole into the Martian surface and took a photo of its first near perfect artifact on another celestial body. Scientists on the ground gave the exact instructions on the execution of the drill by communicating with the rover through radio waves, consequently radio waves transmitted back to Earth the image of the resulting perfect hole, in what I consider the first Cosmic Land Art installation created by the collaboration of humans and a non-human. The photo was widely distributed, possibly generating a reaction of awe, the same perhaps generated in the past by written recounts of exotic lands in the Far East and by illustrations of unimaginable plants and animals from far away lands. The limits of scientific images is broadening and with it human knowledge is compelled to stretch, resorting on thought rather than direct sensory experience. Radio transmissions have been extending the reach of audio visual communication into outer space for nearly a century, anticipating by decades the age of manned space exploration.
For more than a century, radio technologies have been shaping the culture and society we live in, gradually inducing a radical and global cognitive shift which has been broadening our earth-centered perspective into our cosmos-wide view. Radio waves transmissions allow us to remotely explore outer space, exposing the conventional perception of our surroundings to a virtual yet uncannily real and detailed landscape, made of matter still to be defined. Images of Mars transmitted back on Earth by the NASA rover ‘Curiosity’, raise philosophical questions on the projected embodiment caused by the audio visual representation of outer space, as a result of two way radio transmissions. Radio waves become thus the carriers of a new found global awareness and cultural contents, exceeding their scientific and technological function. Radio transmissions are crucial in contemporary and future interplanetary and interstellar communication, and their future development will possibly greatly affect the way we will shape our culture and how we will be acting our role as Earth citizens. As an artist who is fascinated by hidden networks across the seas, lands and skies, I find it interesting to follow and speculate on the journey of radio waves across the cosmos and on the new knowledge that such a journey might bring.
Author: Daniela de Paulis
Originally written for KSEVT Space Sight.