Under Surveillance, Artificial Stars

Imagine if the sky could keep track of the passages made by satellites.

Why spy on the satellites
When the night sky is lit up with artificial lighting the stars fade from view. According to a NASA study, as early as 2000, 90% of the North American population could not contemplate the Milky Way because of light pollution. In parallel, a new starry vault has appeared: that of artificial satellites. In fact, the most luminous point in the night sky is the International Space Station (ISS). Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, more than 28,000 artificial objects now orbit the Earth. Each day, thousands of satellites pass over our heads. On rare occasions, these telecommunication systems can be seen with the naked eye. These luminous points appear alongside the stars and planets of the starry vault. Located at a distance between a 100 and 30,000 km from the earth, they gravitate in a predictable way so as to carry out their tasks.

These satellites are now part of our lives. The intrusion of satellite technologies has modified our vision of the world: Google Earth and GPS devices provide access to real time virtual models of the planet. Television, telephony and the internet draw on satellite technologies and make it possible to communicate anywhere on earth. But the occupation of space has more than just civil ramifications.

In 1957, the launch of Sputnik started the space race. On the eve of the space age, the UN founded the Office for Outer Space Affairs with the aim of establishing the principles that would govern activities in space. For example, the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space was signed by the members of the UN in 1976. In summary, it stipulates that the signatory countries register the objects they have launched into space. This register catalogues the satellites according to rigorous standards, and it must be made publicly and freely accessible.

Though at the beginning the main actors were the US and Russia, nowadays many other countries as well as multinationals are filling the vacuum of outer space. Among the thousands of satellites circling the Earth, several do not appear in the official lists. In fact, despite the UN resolutions, hundreds of satellites are classified: their orbits, the data they transmit and the equipment they transport are not made public. But to our delight, on the internet there is a list of secret satellites: small luminous spots that scan the sky but which do not appear in the official lists. These satellites are spotted and by some underground engineers, astronomers and hackers. These groups distribute and maintain the list in order to fill in the missing items of the official list. These are the satellites we are interested in. Up there, far from our gazes, we are being watched with a centimetre level resolution.

How to spy on satellites
I programmed a software in Processing that uses the satellite databases in order to predict when the satellites will pass. The program is the interface that runs all the data. It is connected to a server that contains data on all the satellites in orbit. The main function of this infrastructure is to produce a schedule of the satellites passing. The list comprises the geographic information regarding the position, direction, distance and speed of the satellite. This interface is used in several projects.

Sous surveillance
is an image that shows the 28,000 passages of spy satellites above my studio. Under the code name APO-SAT, I carried out several projects aimed at constructing a mini satellite: simulation of an orbital flight and APO-SAT 0.1 R.-C.B. More recently, the performance Apollo 11 13.06.1969/I.S.S. used the same digital information in order to make the satellites above our heads audible in real time.