I saw two shooting stars last night,
I wished on them
— but they were only satellites.
It’s wrong to wish on space hardware,
but I wish, I wish I wish you’d care.
– Billy Bragg
At any one time there are about 8,000 objects orbiting the earth. One is the moon which has been there a Very Long Time: the rest are man-made satellites; junk fallen from satellites; bits of exploded satellite or redundant satellites waiting to fall back to earth. Since the launch of ‘Sputnik’ in 1957 humans have put 24,500 things into orbit. Just because it’s called ‘space’ doesn’t mean it isn’t downright busy up there.
Despite their importance, to my knowledge no artist has ever been asked to look at the entire production process of one of these satellites from manufacture and testing through to picturing the rocket on the pad. In cahoots with This is Real Art, SES Astra (the world’s biggest commercial satellite operator), permitted me to follow the launch campaign of their Astra 3B, one of the biggest satellites ever launched but otherwise an everyday, common-or-garden satellite tasked with reflecting digital TV signals down onto Germany and Holland. It would be built mostly in Toulouse, flown from Betzdorf in Luxembourg and launched from the huge space complex at Kourou in French Guiana on the north coast of South America.
Burning through a tonne of fuel every second(!) it blasted off from Kourou in the middle of 2010. After 500 seconds it was out of gas. 3B is up there now, in a highly elliptical loop; sometimes 36,000km away and sometimes swooping down to just 250km above our heads. Should you want to watch 350 channels of TV in Germany, Astra will bring them directly into your home.
Simon Norfolk is a landscape photographer whose work over the last ten years has been themed around a probing and stretching of the meaning of the word ‘battlefield’ in all its forms. As such, he has photographed in some of the world’s worst war zones and refugee crises, but is equally at home photographing supercomputers used to design military systems or test launches of nuclear missiles. He has been described by one critic as “the leading documentary photographer of our time. Passionate, intelligent and political; there is no one working in photography that has his vision or his clarity”.
Project commissioned by This is Real Art. Creative director: Paul Belford.