Department of Physics and Astronomy, Leicester University, 13-15 March 2013
Three amazing days observing the observers, at a short residency I set up with the SWIFT satellite astronomers at Leicester University. My aim was to prepare for Extinction Event, my upcoming commission at Phoenix Square, by researching gamma-ray bursts, or GRBs. I needed to find out more about these epic, cinematic, explosions that signify cataclysmic historical change in deep space and time. I came away from Leicester University with new perspectives to explore on Flusser’s notions of the apparatus and the technical image.
UV telescope data
I arrived on Wednesday to the Physics building, and briefings on X-ray astronomy with my hosts Dr Kim Page and Professor Julian Osborne. Along with a multinational team of astronomers and data scientists, they get to call the shots on which deep-space objects get examined using the SWIFT satellite orbiting Earth. SWIFT is rather like a huge DSLR camera in space, with a daily shooting script, recording durational takes of distant light beyond the visible spectrum.
Gamma ray bursts emit gamma photons and X-rays, and when the satellite’s BAT instrument (Burst Alert Telescope) detects a spike of radiation it tunes into the afterglow for more detail by ‘slewing’ in space (like a huge panorama shot). There’s a difference between short and long bursts: star collisions unleash short events measured in milliseconds, and novae bursts can last into a couple of hundred seconds. They probably occur once every million years, in each galaxy.
By way of continuing our interdisciplinary dialogue, I spoke to the Leicester team about Griffiths Cue-Dot Observatory, my 5-year mission to observe and analyse a catalogue of cinema changeover marks, a pseudo-astronomical process I engaged in from 2006-10. As I finished my presentation (right on cue)… a Burst Alert! Everyone’s mobile phones beeped as the satellite detected a potential GRB, and we all raced to the SWIFT lab to observe the radiation as recorded live by the onboard instruments. Just 11 photons registered, but it was enough to confirm the ‘sighting’ of GRB130313A, a short gamma ray burst that lasted merely 400 milliseconds, occurring billions of years ago in the early Universe. However, the GRB ‘image’ as such is only representable as reams of numbers and graphs flashing up on screens around the lab. Was the ‘photograph’ then the sum of these abstract data?
The new GRB was later confirmed in a teleconference (via the BAT Phone) between astronomers in Leicester, Penn State, and the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Florida. I listened in awe as they read science reports, and scheduled the next few days of detailed observations, re-examining X-ray source targets for more data. An exhilarating first day – spotting a new GRB, marking an epic changeover of life and death in its lonely region of time and space. I headed to the campus café to photograph the day’s newspaper headlines – dominated by the election of smiling Pope Francis I, the new ‘hand of God’. A papal changeover. Poetically apt images of a historical, yet insignificant, extinction event.
This morning Kim took me to visit the labs of Leicester University’s Space Research Centre, to see the design and engineering of satellites and observation instruments, such as the X-ray telescope onboard SWIFT. I met veteran scientists who’ve been working on CCD technology and space flight since the 1960s. After a tea break with Physics dept, Julian talked through more images of GRB peculiarities and Sino-European plans for a new X-ray successor to SWIFT.
I turned myself into a human microfiching machine, and spent the afternoon photographing in the SWIFT lab – the team of data scientists, their office clutter, and their postcards from exotic astro conference destinations. It is dawning on me that the team are like a film crew operating a big HD camera in space. To document the entire gesture of photographing one far-flung decisive event (GRB30313A), I realised I needed to capture fully the human, social environment of observation. I listened in my hotel room to The Swift Song, an educational ditty about GRBs by AstroCapella, a cool astronomers doo-wop group at Goddard.
This morning I listened into a second NASA teleconference, after another long burst, GRB150313A, was detected. Julian showed me around the SWIFT database, a roaring, glowing patchwork of computers, telecom gear and hard drives in a climate-controlled server room. This was the heart of the photographic apparatus. It was also Red Nose Day, and I captured all the bakes on sale – again suitably dinosaur-themed. I asked Dr Kim Page to record a voice interview, in which she described the causes of gamma-ray bursts, and the fictional cataclysmic effects of a death-ray hitting a biosphere such as Earth. My last job of the day, and the residency, was to save all the data and images relating to GRB130313A. There were reams of text documenting the satellite movements, observing duration, photon counts, coordinates, and much cross-referencing with other ground-based (‘big glass’) telescopes around the world.
A three-day process to ‘photograph’ an unphotographable event – documenting the GRB’s physicality and short existence through its metadata and its social visuality here on Earth.
Funded by MIRIAD, Manchester School of Art