What does it mean if we can no longer see the stars?

One of the first buildings to be built in 1962 on the new university campus was the 'sterrentoren' (star tower) by Sjoerd Woudstra. It was meant to host an astronomical observatory. As soon as the construction was finished though it became clear the light pollution would make an observatory useless. The expansion of the campus and the city of Utrecht meant that it literally became impossible to see the stars. The anecdote of the sterrentoren raises the question, what it means if we can no longer see the bigger picture? Watching the night sky is an activity that instinctively makes us ask: what is out there? How does that relate to me? Watching the sky is also an activity that lies at the basis of scientific curiosity, yet on the USP campus it is no longer possible. Is this observation merely symbolic or does it tell us something more? Is a sustainable campus one where we create these spaces ourselves in order to be able to ask these basic questions?

picture of the Sterrentoren shot by Martin Klumper

Sterrentoren by Sjoerd Woudstra. Photo by Martin Klumper

map of light pollution around utrecht

Map of light pollution around Utrecht. The area around the Utrecht Science Park is one of the most heavily light-polluted areas in the area of utrecht. source

Where am I?

The answer to that question has a really direct and simple answer. You, reader, are currently on the intersection between some latitudinal and longitudinal set of coordinates. This information, gathered from the Global Positioning System of satellites, provides us a specific but perhaps also unsatisfying answer. Yet, as we can no longer observe the natural bodies on the night's sky, can we observe these artificial moons and use those observations to answer where we are? Not in the literal sense, but rather as a way of thinking and asking more questions. What are the systems around us? What do these tell us about ourselves? Is it possible to map out all these artificial moons that orbit the earth? Can we use this information to understand how we look at ourselves through our own instruments? And most importantly, how would we do that?

skymap

How does a map of artificial moons look like? How does one get a grip on ever shifting constellations of satellites?

Spacekeet

The spacekeet will be an experimental method to answer these questions. It is a mobile diy satellite ground station, built in an old builder's keet ('shack') and designed with the help of members of the Werkgroep Kunstmanen. Members of this hobby association have been building satellite receivers and decoding satellite transmissions since the 1970s. Their machines, which sometimes consist of bike parts, chicken wire and self-built electronics, are able to track satellites as they fly through our sky at 800km altitude. Spacekeet will host a variety of workshops, meetings and observation moments and try. Between the 1st of may and the end of june you will find it in a field opposite of the Educatorium, where it will be an eye pointed at the sky. Most importantly the spacekeet is an invitation to you, to join amateurs, hobbyists, students and professionals to come together and try to find answers or at least ask better questions.

schets keet

schets schotel

This project is part of the Zero Footprint Campus