Here's hoping that the residents of Almere, the Netherlands, have gotten the proper heads-up that on select evenings through mid-January, the darkened sky above the city will be permeated with brilliant green rays of light that, at first glance, appear to be beamed down from the heavens by an unseen fleet of alien spacecraft.
After all, it's easy to jump to that conclusion in this day and age. (Southern California residents who succumbed to panic attacks during the Oct. 8 launch and landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket can certainly relate.)
In reality, the seemingly extraterrestrial light show scheduled to occur twice a month above Almere is the latest work from Daan Roosegaarde, the visionary Dutch artist and designer best known for ethereal light installations that draw attention to social and environmental issues.
"Windlicht" (2016) was a spellbinding ode to "the beauty of green energy" that paired wind turbine blades with high-powered LED beams. "Van Gough Path" (2012-2015) was a glow-in-the-dark urban cycling trail meant to "create a place of wonder and inspiration, but also enhancement of public safety and local place making." More recently, Roosegaarde's permanent "Gates of Light" (2017) installation breathed stunning new life into the iconic 1930s-era floodgates of the Afsluitdijk — a 20-mile-long causeway/flood barrier connecting the provinces of Friesland and North Holland — with light-reflecting prisms illuminated by the headlights of passing cars.
With his transfixing light show in Almere, Roosegaarde and his eponymous Rotterdam-based "social design lab" are taking on the oft-overlooked issue of space waste by using emerald-colored columns of light to track galactic garbage as it floats across the night sky in real-time.
By visualizing space waste in such a dramatic yet perceptible fashion, Studio Roosegaarde, working with the support of the European Space Agency's Clean Space program, hopes to bring greater awareness to the plight of celestial litter, which is mainly composed of dead satellites, spent rocket stages and bits and pieces of expired spacecraft.
Imagine a vast and limitless junkyard where nearly 18 million pounds of manmade debris can be found orbiting just beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Per NASA, there are over 20,000 pieces of orbital debris circling the planet that are larger than a softball and can travel at speeds topping 17,500 miles per hour — that's big and fast enough to inflict considerable damage upon active spacecraft and satellites.
Yet the space waste quandary is one that, for most, remains out of sight and out of mind.
"We need to look at space in a better way," says Roosegaarde. "What is space waste, how can we fix it, and what is its potential? Space waste is the smog of our universe."
Don't be alarmed ... the giant green lasers in the sky above the Netherlands' seventh largest city aren't being beamed down from a spacecraft manned by little green men. (Photo: Space Waste Lab/Studio Roosegaarde)
Shining a light on space junk
Dubbed Space Waste Lab, Roosegaarde's latest endeavor is composed of two parts. Space Waste Lab Performance is the orbital debris-pinpointing LED light show displayed above Almere that, after debuting on Oct. 5 to a crowd of over 8,000, will take place on the evenings of Nov. 9 and 10, Dec. 7 and 8 and Jan. 18 and 19.
For the visualization, streetlights and illuminated signage are temporarily turned off in the surrounding area for greater visibility. Per Studio Roosegaarde, the show, which employs special space waste-tracking software and cameras to accurately pinpoint drifting detritus, will be executed "in compliance with strict safety and aviation regulations."
And as Roosegaarde tells Dezeen, there were actually several reports of a UFO sighting in Almere during a test-run of the Space Waste Lab Performance — so perhaps locals weren't given the heads-up after all.
"So there was a real alien beauty to it," he says, adding: "It moves really slowly, but this makes it very dramatic. It's really great to take something very abstract and problematic, and turn it into something visual and very sharable."
Accompanying the mesmerizing, UFO-esque outdoor light show is an indoor educational exhibition held at the Kunstlinie Almere Flevoland (KAF) cultural center through Jan. 19. Here, visitors can view real pieces of recovered galactic garbage supplied by the ESA including a piece of the Hubble Space Telescope, attend expert-led talks and panels and view short films on the topic of cosmic rubbish.
With an eye toward innovation, science and environmentalism, past projects by Studio Roosegaarde include smog-sucking towers and glow-in-the-dark bicycle paths. (Photo: Space Waste Lab/Studio Roosegaarde)
"I'm a strong believer in cooperation between technologists and artists," says ESA director Franco Ongaro in a press statement. "We believe in what we do as a service to society, but we are often unable to communicate its worth effectively enough. Artists not only communicate vision and feelings to the public, but help us discover aspects of our work which we are often unable to perceive. This cooperation is all the more important when dealing with issues like space debris, which may one day impact our future, and our ability to draw maximum benefits from space."
Poetically transcendent light shows aside, the true raison d'être of Space Waste Lab is solution-oriented: how can we safely and effectively clean up the formidable amount of junk orbiting Earth? Roosegaarde imagines that the discussions resulting from Space Waste Lab will lead to a potential second phase of Space Waste Lab — a phase in which orbital debris is captured and subsequently upcycled into new "sustainable products."
After all, if we can collect terrestrial waste and turn it into new things, why can't the same be done with trash that's polluting outer space?
The transfixing Space Waste Lab Performance helps denizens of planet Earth grasp just how polluted with waste the physical universe beyond the atmosphere really is. (Photo: Space Waste Lab/Studio Roosegaarde)
From sucking up smog to cleaning up outer space
While it isn't clear how the second phase of Space Waste Lab will pan out, Studio Roosegaarde isn't exactly a newbie when it comes to transforming seemingly intangible elements into covetable objects.
In addition to the aforementioned light installations across the Netherlands, Roosegaarde and his team have garnered significant international acclaim for designing a 23-foot-tall smog vacuum cleaner that not only effectively scrubs polluted urban air but also generates "gemstones" made from compressed smog particles that can be embedded into wearable items like rings and cufflinks.
After debuting in Rotterdam in 2015, additional Smog Free Towers have popped up in air pollution-plagued cities such as Beijing, Tianjin and Krakow, Poland. The not-so-precious jewels produced by the towers were the subject of a recent New York Times article detailing the nascent popularity of smog-based engagement rings amongst eco-conscious couples. ("The ring is made of hundreds of thousands of gallons of pollution sucked from the air and compressed into a tiny box and covered by a shiny, protective case," explains the Times.)
"The normal paradigm is for you to start your marriage by buying something that causes harm to the environment and the people who are working to get out the diamond," Chloe Stein, whose then-boyfriend proposed to her with a "smog-free ring" in lieu of the traditional gemstone, tells the Times. "By not buying into the system, we started our marriage not only with a clean slate, but an environmentally positive state."
The rings cost just under $300 with all proceeds going toward Studio Roosegaarde's efforts to build and install additional smog-scrubbing towers in cities grappling with poor air quality. The latest is set to debut in Mexico City later this year.
This all being said, it's not all that difficult imaging Roosegaarde's next big venture being a line of fashion accessories crafted from bits and bobs of garbage harvested from the great big void above.