Sonic Planetarium is a realtime spatial audio model of the objects orbiting Earth. Visitors walk within an array of surround-sound speakers to hear satellites pass slowly overhead.
How it works
The computer running the speaker array retrieves satellite orbital data and audio files from an online database, which itself uses the API of space-track.org to retrieve two-line-element (TLE) orbital descriptions and calculate observed paths from the points of view of particular places on Earth. It works similarly to other satellite tracking and visualization efforts, such as Heavens-above.com, n2yo.com, and stuffin.space, but instead of using these calculations to create online maps or visuals of orbiting satellites, Sonic Planetarium describes satellite paths from the position of an observer using sound.
Fiction vs non-fiction
Thanks to the efforts of ham radio operators, many of the audio files used to represent satellites are actual recordings of transmissions from those particular satellites. So while the audio is not up to date in time, and not all satellites transmit continuously, and satellites are not likely to transmit the same information over time, many of the satellites are represented by a reasonably ‘real’ sounds.
Sonic Planetarium is led by Heidi Neilson, KD2ESI, an interdisciplinary artist interested in the connections between people on the ground and off-planet conditions and infrastructure, see heidineilson.com. Kim Fisher is a GIS programmer, web developer, and mapping enthusiast, and handles database programming for this project. Tommy Martinez is an artist and technologist specializing in multichannel sound, video, code, and improvisations with guitar and custom software, including Max/MSP for Sonic Planetarium, thomasjohnmartinez.com
Many thanks to the following institutions for their support in the research, development, production, and exhibition of Sonic Planetarium: Art Matters Foundation, DC Listening Lounge, Harvestworks, Hirshhorn Museum, New York Foundation for the Arts, SPACES, and Wave Farm. Thanks also to the efforts of individuals who have made this project possible: Kim Fisher and Tommy Martinez are instrumental in the project’s many-layered programming; many ham radio operators and others have generously contributed satellite sounds, in particular the online archives of Matthias Bopp, DD1US, and John Paypay, K8YSE.
hn (at) heidineilson (dot) com
The background image on this website is from an ongoing series of photographs of L5, a location in Earth’s orbit, from Earth. More info here.