I’ve been an artist-in-residence at SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — for several weeks now. Many think of SETI as people who listen for signals from advanced alien life in the deep desert.
Of course, this isn’t even close to the full story. SETI is also doing amazing work in the field of planetary science: the stuff in our solar system
Why would SETI scientists be playing in our astronomical backyard in the quest for extraterrestrial life? …a couple of reasons:
(1) there is a decent chance of microbial life in our solar system, which certainly counts as “extraterrestrial” life, though not as exciting as an advanced alien species.
(2) if we understand how life began on Earth, then we can apply that knowledge to determine how life might originate on other planets.
Planetary data is ripe with amazing possibilities. My current artistic focus is to write custom software code which translates datasets into physical sculptures and installations. My first foray is meteorite impact data from SETI.
The scientist I am currently working with is Dr. Peter Jenniskens, who is one of the world’s experts on meteors and meteorites. And, as I have discovered, he is also interested in the artistic possibilities.
The 2008 TC3 asteroid was discovered on October 6th, 2008, heading right for Earth. Calculations were made to determine its approximate impact, which ended up being in Sudan just 19 hours later. The event was significant — it’s the first time we’ve been able to calculate the location of a “small body” impact with Earth. For all it’s importance, 2008 TC3 deserves a much better name. After all, even Lance Armstrong has an asteroid named after him.
Dr. Jenniskens was not only near the impact zone the next day, on October 7th but also led an expedition to map and collect the meteorite fragments. He worked with nearly 100 students at the University of Khartoum to find, geolocate and weigh everything they could find.
It is very unusual to be able to get an accurate strewn field map like this. Usually fresh meteorites hit the ocean or areas that are difficult to collect meteorites for various reasons.
I work at the Creative Workshops at Autodesk, and have access to their 3D printers. I printed out a model of the 2008 TC3 asteroid, at least one possible physical mapping of the asteroid that approximates its shape. Dr. Jenniskens got a gift of plastic that day.He later showed me the fragments of one of the meteorites. The crust has an amazing texture, which looks like baked clay. Inside, it looks like a regular rock, well at least to my untrained eyes.Onto the datasets! Peter Jenniskens provided me which had the geolocation + mass of 639 meteorites that his team found. It is now my job to do something with this amazing information.
With my Bad Data series, I wrote custom software that translates the datasets into a map of vector shapes which I then cut, etch, mill or work with somehow on a CNC machine — laser-cutter, water-jet, Shopbot, etc.
I applied similar code to this dataset, creating this map. The larger circles correspond to more mass. It even looks like an impact, with the smaller fragments being shed off before the bulk of the extraterrestrial rocks hit our planet.
It will be a slog of testing with various materials before I get a final result that I’m happy with. I love this part — the back n’ forth playing with data and materials to get a final aesthetic result that is pleasing.
But, I did manage to squeeze out some tests on wood and have this result. It’s promising.