By Janet Burns
On July 8th, a tiny, colorful new satellite joined the approximately 3000 others orbiting the Earth just outside its atmosphere. The UKube-1 — weighing in at just under 8 pounds and taking up only 1.3 cubic feet — brings together different technologies and cultures, carrying several kinds of British mechanisms inside an American pop art shell.
UKube’s Celestial Charging Station facade is the work of Jon Gibson and Amanda White, creative directors and co-owners of iam8bit, a pop art-loving LA production company and gallery. The black, white, and orange design is etched into the satellite’s surface for longevity’s sake, and cheerfully invites alien visitors to plug in their devices before heading down to earth: “[i]f someone is going to invade our planet, presumably they’re going to come in some sort of electronic, electricity-powered ship,” Gibson jokes to Fox, adding, “Maybe this will make them stop for a moment and say, ‘These guys are nice. We’re not going to destroy their planet.”‘ Beyond appeasing invaders (their disappointment at discovering that the outlets are fake notwithstanding), the piece is meant to reflect the current state of culture far below the satellite. Gibson explains to artnet:
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,
Their project follows in the footsteps (or, perhaps, giant leaps) of earlier space-installed artwork such as Paul van Hoeydonck‘s Fallen Astronaut, which has been on the moon since 1971, and conceptual photography project The Last Pictures, orbiting the earth on a communications satellite since 2012.
The satellite is a CubeSat, a type first developed by California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and Stanford University, and was built by Scottish spacecraft manufacturer Clyde Space under the direction of the UK Space Agency. As the new agency’s first commissioned extraterrestrial mission, UKube-1 has been packed with award-winning technology from across the British isles; among its impressive payloads are TOPCAT, a GPS device for measuring plasmaspheric space weather, the CMOS Image Demonstrator, a camera intended to test the effect of radiation on space hardware, and AMSAT’s FUNcube-2, allowing elementary- and high-school students to interact with the satellite.
UKube-1 is part of a growing generation of so-called “nanosatellites,” which are cheaper to build and deploy, can feature experimental technologies, and are easily available for purchase. “[Nanosatellites] open the door to do lots of different things in space,” Clyde Space CEO Craig Clark tells Wired UK. “Within five years I’d like to be making 100 nanosatellites a year [here in Scotland].”