Introduction: How to Send Art Into Outer Space

About: I've worked for Instructables off and on since 2006 building and documenting just about everything I enjoy doing. I am now the Creative Programs founder and manager for Autodesk and just finished building out…

In February of 2014, a small team of employees from Planet Labs came to Autodesk's Pier 9 to tour our workshop and offices. As we walked and talked, we communed over common values, similar interests, and shared our desire to learn from our respective creative communities. What followed from that day, and setting of intentions, was two years of planning, meeting, collaborating, laser engraving and rocket launching to create a unique and wonderful partnership that ultimately became the largest art exhibition in space. This is the Instructable that tells the story of why and how that happened.

Step 1: Why Send Art Into Space?

What could be more scintillating than the distant, unknown or otherwise intangible? For eons, the phenomena driving humans to their greatest discoveries have also been the most elusive and invisible to the unassisted eye: the deepest seas, the craggiest mountain precipices, and perhaps most nebulously, the infinite reaches of outer space. Despite the encyclopedia of dangers that lie just beyond all visible horizons, something about unfamiliarity drives us to take big risks. Our inquisitiveness propels us. Our thirst to adventure, discover, and imagine the future is what defines historical epochs; from the Stone Age, to the Space Age, to now. The partnership between the Autodesk Pier 9 Workshop and Planet Labs hinges on the same intrepid curiosity.

Together, we created the largest art exhibition in space.

Step 2: Partner With a Company Who Puts Things in Space

Pier 9 exists as a platform for humans to push mechanical, material and computational boundaries to imagine, design and create the unknown. All that said, we've never put anything in space before.

We partnered with Planet Labs, a company crafting one of the largest constellations of objects in outer space, all of which give us greater perspective on terrestrial phenomena. Planet Labs’ satellites, also known as “doves,” orbit and image our planet, providing unprecedented insight on climate patterns, water tables, deforestation and other data sets carrying the potential to radically change our understanding of the sublunary world.

Planet Labs invited Pier 9’s community of artists and designers to reflect on the curiosities of space, and to create original artwork to be laser-etched onto the side panels of a flock of satellites deployed by the International Space Station.

Step 3: Have a Request for Proposals

In the spring of 2014, we worked with Planet Labs to create a call for proposals that allowed interested parties to determine what we were looking for.

Generally, a call for proposals includes the following details:

  • A summary of what the art exhibition or project will be
  • A general timeline of when selected projects will be announced, and when the exhibition will be
  • Information about what the artist will receive for their participation (examples: materials, honorarium, an exhibition catalogue, etc)
  • Most of the time, artists responding to a request for proposals will provide the following details:
  • An image or sketch of what the project will be
  • A brief artist's statement about the intentions behind the work

Here's the call for proposals that we used for this project.

Step 4: Format the Artwork for the Satellite Side Panel

This is the cut file for the side panel of the satellite. The artwork had to be created inside this particular canvas, and as an added requirement, could not remove too much of the white coating on the aluminum side panels which help control the satellites temperature in the sun.

Therefore, images were optimized with line work, rather than fills, and when possible, to leave large areas of the reflective white coating intact to reflect sunlight in outer space and keep the satellites from over-heating.

Step 5: Select Artwork

We organized a selection committee with representatives from both Pier 9, and Planet Labs to review the applications. For this project, we stored all the applications on a google drive folder that allowed us to see all the artists' materials at once.

The selection committee worked together to determine which projects met the exhibition's criteria and served both Autodesk and Planet Lab's institutional objectives.

Step 6: Laser Engrave Artwork on Aluminum Side Panels

Once the we chose the artwork that was to be included int he show, we were ready to begin the engraving process.

Planet Labs sent over the coated aluminum side panels from several of their satellites that were heading towards the production line for us to engrave at Pier 9. The panels are milled out of aluminum and have a reflective white powder coating to reduce temperatures on the satellites.

We used a combination of the Metabeam Laser Cutter and Epilog Laser Cutter to vector cut and raster etch onto each of the panels. Although each engraving took less than 30 minutes to create in its final form, the team spent many hours adjusting the settings for the best quality cut, and testing the files before doing the final engraving.

Step 7: Assemble the Satelites

Planet Labs' satellites are assembled in San Francisco, California. Each dove contains a digital camera that captures 3-5 meters per pixel and multiple spectra, as well as orthorectified 16-bit unsigned integers with radiometric, sensor and geometric corrections. The etched panels were affixed to the satellites' exteriors, and were later tested to ensure they could withstand the pressures of space.

Step 8: Ship Satellites to Launch Sites

Planet Labs works with a range of space agencies to send their satellites into space. When there's a planned launch, Planet Labs determines if there's space available for their satellites to hitch a ride up.

For one of the deployments in 2015, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) took a flock of doves up to space.

Step 9: Overcome Obstacles

Getting into space isn't easy, and sometimes there are terminal failures along the way. In June of 2015, a Space X CR7 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida exploded shortly after launch when one of the struts inside the boosters upper stage failed.

Planet Labs lost 8 satellites in the launch, and although none of the satellites that were lost contained artwork from Pier 9, this led to significant delays in the launch schedule and pushed the project, and ultimate exhibition back in time.

Full details of the setbacks and obstacles that Planet Labs valiantly worked through in 2015 is summarized in this article:

Step 10: Launch Into Space!

Once they find a spot on a successful space flight of a shuttle or rocket, the satellites get delivered to the International Space Station. Some of the artists and program staff that were involved watched the launch from Pier 9 and cheered as the rocket made the journey safely.

Step 11: Release Satellites From International Space Station

The satellites remain on the space station until an astronaut deploys them, which releasing them into orbit from a pod, where they then stay in sunsynchronous orbit for several years before burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Step 12: Plan Exhibition

Planning an exhibition is not entirely unlike planning a wedding; there are many variables to take into consideration! Here are some of the most important parts:

  • Several months before your event, put a deposit down at your venue to secure your space.
  • Finalize all the artwork with the artists involved. Make sure that the work you're including is the most finished version possible!
  • Invite people! You might want to hire a graphic designer, or you could use a template provided by a site like Paperless Post or MailChimp. Make sure the artists know when the event is. You might also want to event friends, family, or members of the media.
  • Figure out how you want to display the artwork. This might mean making a floor plan, setting up wall hooks, painting walls, buying easels or whatever else you can imagine!
  • Give credit. Figure out how you want to credit the artists by displaying their names and project titles.
  • Book a bar and caterer. You can also save a ton of money by buying your own food and beverages. Anyone can make a cheese plate!

Step 13: Enjoy Largest Exhibition of Artwork in Space

Now's the time to enjoy the fruits of your labor!

When we sent our art into space, we celebrated by throwing a party at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California. We displayed enlarged replicas of the panels we sent in space, and we complemented the artwork with laser light planetarium shows, viewings from Chabot's large-scale telescope, a DJ, space-themed cocktails, and an astronaut photo booth! We also aired the amazing video chronicling the process made by Pier 9's Digital Storyteller, Charlie Nordstrom.