Satellite Art

North Korea Satellite View via WIkimedia

Feature image: North Korea satellite view via Wikimedia

Visions from Beyond: Unveiling Humanity and Nature Through Satellite Art

Satellite art is considered a magnum opus of intersectional arts because it provides the public with a tangible view of the world using raw data. That data is then turned into a story of humanity, emphasizing environmental change within an environment, reflecting historical moments as seen from space, and even uncovering the ruins of civilizations tens of thousands of years old. The art is created by receiving visual data from satellites that can reach up to 500 miles away from Earth in orbit and manipulating the representations of light wavelengths to view the world as we know it in colors we never thought we’d see it in. the images shown were created using a combination of natural color and infrared light.

On the medium: The Landsat satellite series

This art is made possible through the Landsat program, which has been providing images for global change research since 1972. The current satellite most often used is Landsat 9, which was created specifically to focus on imaging urban development and the influence of natural disasters. The satellite was launched by NASA on September 27, 2021. The craft cost 129.9 million dollars. However, since it is still new, most curated galleries of satellite images come from Landsat 8, which still operates normally after being in space for over ten years. All data and images from any of the Landsat satellites are protected under a free and open data policy that allows scientists, researchers, and artists alike to use it to understand the world around them, whether it be through peer-reviewed studies or creative visualizations of the data.

Buba River 2006 via Wikimedia
Buba River 2006 via Wikimedia

Art of the Public Domain - accessible data makes accessible art

In addition to being such a tangible work of technological art through adaptive image manipulation, satellite art is one of the most accessible works to the public. NASA’s satellite images are all protected under the public domain. These images are of the world and are for the world to see.

This public data provides limitless possibilities for how someone might create art with these images. Even when exhibitions travel for these things, they will add new images within minutes of receiving them, emphasizing the real-time changes we can analyze using these tools. 

Earth as Art 5 via USGS
Earth as Art 5 via USGS

A review of exhibitions of satellite art

Earth as Art displays a wide range of natural disasters, as seen by Landsat 8. From the eerie shadows of dust storms in Egypt to color studies of the Kenyan landscape, these pieces are prime examples of scientists and artists working together to change our view of the world as we know it.

While these images started from a machine, scientists and artists work diligently to emphasize their humanity. Strengthening personal connections to this data through art is more important than ever as the world grows more distanced and desensitized to current events.

While these images represent mere moments in time, when curated alongside one another, they tell the story of the planet in the wake of humanity through many forms. The Earth as Art series “Relies on the interplay of visible and invisible light across the electromagnetic spectrum made possible by satellite sensors.” The curations capture the wonder people express when creating art on a canvas by providing viewers with a variety of perspectives on the inner workings of our planet. 

Earth as Art, Landsat 8 via USGS
Earth as Art, Landsat 8 via USGS

The image “re-entry” is of an eroded granite boulder in the Sahara Desert and was taken using Landsat 8. Jebel Kissu is what remains of a long-eroded granite structure. Pieces like this today are crucial to the conversations surrounding climate change and humanity and the landscape in which it exists. This interpretation deepens as you look closer at the almost vein-like lines. These contours were created by truck. The lines disperse away from each other because there are no roads for them to follow in the Sahara Desert. The wind and sands of Northwestern Sudan soon after washed these lines away like an ocean tide. The orange sands surrounding the rock display the way sand moves around the rock. By changing how different kinds of visible and invisible light are represented in the image, the weathered granite rock begins to resemble an asteroid burning through Earth’s atmosphere.

Sometimes, the colors of these images can be manipulated to convey different messages. For example, in “Crimson Streams,” any green in the image is recolored to red. This makes the streams in Morocco appear full of blood, but this is not the case. These streams are filled to the brim with life, and by changing the color to red, the streams look like human blood vessels. Much like the blood pumping through our veins, these streams are alive and home to thousands of species.

Whirlpool via NASA
Whirlpool via NASA

Future implications

How we represent this data as artists determines how the world understands it. Satellite art facilitates a conversation about humanity’s impermanence and impact on the world. Immersive installations could illuminate the overview effect that astronauts feel when seeing Earth from Space. Artists could use this data to instill this overview effect in gallerygoers—this feeling is commonly only experienced by the select few who know the world from hundreds of thousands of miles away.

In addition, these pieces will only continue to serve as reminders that while each person is small in comparison to the size of the world, our impact on the planet is visible from space in ways we never imagined it would. Crop circles dot the landscape, telling tales of growth, innovation, and prosperity. However, you can also see the borders of nations that are but children compared to the lifespan of the planet. Due to deforestation, mountains are scarred from mining operations, and fishbone-like grooves have appeared in the Amazon. Art using this data means we have a record of how we influence our world and shows us how we can hold ourselves accountable in the future.


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