Positions of the Unknown – Tracking 52 secret satellites in Earth’s orbit

Created by Juliane Götz and Sebastian Neitsch of Quadrature and currently on view within the Ars Electronica exhibition at the DRIVE Volkswagen Group Forum in Berlin, “Positions of the Unknown” is an installation of 52 custom-made mini machines that, ever so slowly, track unidentified objects (possibly classified satellites) in Earth’s orbit.

At the very beginning of space exploration the infrastructure to monitor the whole sky was not yet developed. So in order to find out whether foreign countries launched objects, the US government started to train citizens to observe and detect possible artificial satellites. Scattered over the allied world, these amateur scientists played a crucial part in keeping track of all men-made technology orbiting earth, until “Operation Moonwatch” was discontinued in 1975. But existing knowledge and passion did not disappear together with the public mandate and the participating civilians found another sphere of interest: discovering and exposing those objects, whose existence is denied by official sources.

Until today a devoted group of amateur astronomers runs an alternative catalogue, containing about 450 datasets missing in the officially published lists. While most of these classified objects are defined and their true nature known, there are currently 52 objects with no specifications at all and only their locations can be calculated. The project locates the current whereabouts of these 52 mysterious objects by simply pointing at them as they revolve around Earth.

Missing the legal proof, those unidentified artefacts remain entities of pure speculation, secret companions of us and our planet. Even so they have been sighted several times and their ubiquitous presence is therefore somehow validated, they linger in a state between existence and non-existence. Quadrature’s 52 small machines constantly follow their paths and serve as silent witnesses of the unknown.

The installation is controlled with vvvv running on a stripped-down mini PC connected to 4 Arduino Nanos (sending absolute angles) via the serial port. Each Arduino controls 13 pointers (or 26 motors) via i2c (sending relative steps) and is equipped with a I2C Motor Shield for chain-linking motor control signals through one cable. The hardest part, CAN is told, was to get the homing routine working with the help of one hall effect sensor and one magnet per axis (one magnet is inside the tip of the pointer and has to precisely find the hall magnet sensor on the bottom of the construction).

Coinciding with Quadrature’s installation at Berlin’s DRIVE (open through October 26th) is the duo’s first Berlin solo show: “Layers of Expansion” at Galerie am Saalbau (open through November 12th) is curated by Cathérine Kuebel and provides a rare overview of Quadrature’s works from the last two years, featuring pieces like Voyager (the 2015 precursor of Positions of the Unknown), Satelliten (2015) and Masses (2016). The show also includes Classified Orbits (2016), an array of two-dimensional orbit representations of the same ‘secret satellites’ the 52 pointers of Positions of the Unknown (2017) locate in real-time.

Project Page | Quadrature

Positions of the Unknown was realised with the support of Ars Electronica Export and DRIVE. Volkswagen Group Forum, Berlin


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