Glitches in Spacetime, Frozen into the Built Environment

Back in the summer of 2012, Nicola Twilley and I got to visit the headquarters of GPS, out at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

[Image: Artist’s rendering of a GPS satellite, via Wikipedia].

“Masters of Space”

Over the course of a roughly two-hour visit, we toured, among other things, the highly secure, windowless office room out of which the satellites that control GPS are monitored and operated. Of course, GPS–the Global Positioning System—is a constellation of 32 satellites, and it supplies vital navigational information for everything from smartphones, cars, and construction equipment to intercontinental missiles.

It is “the world’s largest military satellite constellation,” Schriever Air Force Base justifiably boasts.

For somewhat obvious reasons, Nicola and I were not allowed to bring any audio or video recording devices into the facility (although I was able to take notes), and we had to pass through secure checkpoint after secure checkpoint on our way to the actual room. Most memorable was the final door that led to the actual control room: it was on a 15-second emergency response, meaning that, if the door stayed open for more than 15 seconds, an armed SWAT team would arrive to see what was wrong.

When we got inside the actual office space, the lights were quite low and at least one flashing red light reminded everyone inside that civilians were now present; this meant that nothing classified could be discussed. Indeed, if anyone needed to hop on the telephone, they first needed to shout, “Open line!” to make sure that everyone knew not to discuss classified information, lest someone on the other end of the phonecall might hear.

Someone had even made a little JPG for us, welcoming “Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley” to the GPS HQ, and it remained on all the TV monitors while we were there inside the space.

[Image: Transferring control over the GPS constellation. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force/no photographer given].

Surreally, in a room without windows, a group of soldiers who, on the day we visited, were all-male and looked no more than 23 or 24 years old, wore full military camouflage, despite the absence of vegetation to blend into, as they controlled the satellites.

At one point, a soldier began uploading new instructions to the satellites, and we watched and listened as one of those artificial stars assumed its new place in the firmament. What would Giordano Bruno have made of such a place?

This was the room behind the curtain, so to speak, a secure office out of which our nation’s surrogate astronomy is maintained and guided.

Appropriately, they call themselves “Masters of Space.”

[Image: A “Master of Space” badge from Schriever Air Force Base].

In any case, I mention all this for at least two reasons:

A 50,000km-Wide Dark Matter Detector

Edge to edge, the GPS constellation can apparently be considered something of a single device, a massive super-detector whose “time glitches” could be analyzed for signs of dark matter.

As New Scientist explained last month, “The network of satellites is about 50,000 kilometers in diameter, and is traveling through space—along with the entire solar system—at about 300 kilometers a second. So any time shift when the solar system passes through a cosmic kink will take a maximum of 170 seconds to move across network.”

The temporal distortion—a kind of spacetime wave—would propagate across the constellation, taking as long as 170 seconds to pass from one side to the other, leaving forensically visible traces in GPS’s navigational timestamps.

The very idea of a 50,000-kilometer wide super-device barreling through “cosmic kinks” in spacetime is already mind-bogglingly awesome, but add to this the fact that the “device” is actually an artificial constellation run by the U.S. military, and it’s as if we are all living inside an immersive, semi-weaponized, three-dimensional spacetime instrument, sloshing back and forth with 170-second-long tides of darkness, the black ropes of spacetime being strummed by the edges of a 32-point star.

Even better, those same cosmic kinks could theoretically show up as otherwise imperceptible moments of locational error on your own smartphone. This would thus enlist you, against your knowledge, as a minor relay point in a dark matter detector larger than the planet Earth.

The Architectural Effects of Space Weather

While Nicola and I were out at the GPS headquarters in Colorado, one of the custodians of the constellation took us aside to talk about all the various uses of the navigational information being generated by the satellites—including, he pointed out, how they worked to mitigate or avoid errors.

Here, he specifically mentioned the risk of space weather affecting the accuracy of GPS—that is, things like solar flares and other solar magnetic events. These can throw-off the artificial stars of the GPS constellation, leading to temporarily inaccurate location data—which can then mislead our construction equipment here on Earth, even if only by a factor of millimeters.

What’s so interesting and provocative about this is that these tiny errors created by space weather risk becoming permanently inscribed into the built environment—or fossilized there, in a sense, due to the reliance of today’s construction equipment on these fragile signals from space.

That 5mm shift in height from one pillar to the next would thus be no mere construction error: it would be architectural evidence for a magnetic storm on the sun.

Take the Millau Viaduct—just one random example about which I happen to have seen a construction documentary. That’s the massive and quite beautiful bridge designed by Foster + Partners, constructed in France.

[Image: The Millau Viaduct, courtesy of Foster + Partners].

The precision required by the bridge made GPS-based location data indispensable to the construction process: “Altimetric checks by GPS ensured a precision of the order of 5mm in both X and Y directions,” we read in this PDF.

But even—or perhaps especially—this level of precision was vulnerable to the distorting effects of space weather.

Evidence of the Universe

I have always loved this quotation from Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail, by A.R.T. Jonkers:

In 1904 a young American named Andrew Ellicott Douglass started to collect tree specimens. He was not seeking a pastime to fill his hours of leisure; his motivation was purely professional. Yet he was not employed by any forestry department or timber company, and he was neither a gardener not a botanist. For decades he continued to amass chunks of wood, all because of a lingering suspicion that a tree’s bark was shielding more than sap and cellulose. He was not interested in termites, or fungal parasites, or extracting new medicine from plants. Douglass was an astronomer, and he was searching for evidence of sunspots.

Imagine doing the same thing as Andrew Ellicott Douglass, but, instead of collecting tree rings, you perform an ultra-precise analysis of modern megastructures that were built using machines guided by GPS.

You’re not looking for lost details of architectural history. You’re looking for evidence of space weather inadvertently preserved in titanic structures such as the Millau Viaduct.

[Image: The Millau Viaduct, courtesy of Foster + Partners].

Fossils of Spacetime

If you take all of this to its logical conclusion, you could argue that, hidden in the tiniest spatial glitches of the built environment, there is evidence not only of space weather but even potentially of the solar system’s passage through “kinks” and other “topological defects” of dark matter, brief stutters of the universe now fossilized in the steel and concrete of super-projects like bridges and dams.

New Scientist points out that a physicist named Andrei Derevianko, from the University of Nevada at Reno, is “already mining 15 years’ worth of GPS timing data for dark matter’s fingerprints,” hoping to prove that GPS errors do, indeed, reveal a deeper, invisible layer of the universe—but how incredibly interesting would it be if, somehow, this same data could be lifted from the built environment itself, secretly found there, inscribed in the imprecisions of construction equipment, perhaps detectable even in the locational drift as revealed by art projects like the Satellite Lamps of Einar Sneve Martinussen, Jørn Knutsen, and Timo Arnall?

The bigger the project, the more likely its GPS errors could be read or made visible—where unexpected curves, glitches, changes in height, or other minor inaccuracies are not just frustrating imperfections caused by inattentive construction engineers, but are actually evidence of spacetime itself, of all the bulging defects and distortions through which our planet must constantly pass now frozen into the built environment all around us.

(Very vaguely related: One of my personal favorite stories here, The Planetary Super-Surface of San Bernardino County).

Just-in-Case Informatics

[Image: A screen grab from the homepage of Orbital Insight].

Proving that some market somewhere will find a value for anything, a company called Orbital Insight is now tracking “the shadows cast by half-finished Chinese buildings” as a possible indicator for where the country’s economy might be headed.

As the Wall Street Journal explains, Orbital Insight is part of a new “coterie of entrepreneurs selling analysis of obscure data sets to traders in search of even the smallest edges.” In many cases, these “obscure data sets” are explicitly spatial:

Take the changing shadows of Chinese buildings, which Mr. Crawford [of Orbital Insight] says can provide a glimpse into whether that country’s construction boom is speeding up or slowing down. Mr. Crawford’s company, Orbital Insight Inc., is analyzing satellite images of construction sites in 30 Chinese cities, with the goal of giving traders independent data so they don’t need to rely on government statistics.

If watching the shadows of Chinese cities from space isn’t quite your cup of tea, then consider that the company “is also selling analysis of satellite imagery of cornfields to predict how crops will shape up and studies of parking lots that could provide an early indicator of retail sales and quarterly earnings of companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Home Depot Inc.”

[Image: A screen grab from the homepage of Orbital Insight].

The resulting data might not even prove useful; but, in a great example of what we might call just-in-case informatics, it’s scooped up and packaged anyway.

The notion that there are fortunes to be made given advance notice of even the tiniest spatial details of the world is both astonishing and sadly predictable—that something as intangible as the slowly elongating shadows of construction sites in China could be turned into a proprietary data point, an informational product sold to insatiable investors.

Everything has a price—including the knowledge of how many cars are currently parked outside Home Depot.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal.

Through the Cracks Between Stars

[Image: Trevor Paglen, “PAN (Unknown; USA-207),” from The Other Night Sky].

I had the pleasure last winter of attending a lecture by Trevor Paglen in Amsterdam, where he spoke about a project of his called The Last Pictures. As Paglen describes it, “Humanity’s longest lasting remnants are found among the stars.”

Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization’s most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

Paglen ended his lecture with an amazing anecdote worth repeating here. Expanding on this notion—that humanity’s longest-lasting ruins will not be cities, cathedrals, or even mines, but rather geostationary satellites orbiting the Earth, surviving for literally billions of years beyond anything we might build on the planet’s surface—Paglen tried to conjure up what this could look like for other species in the far future.

Billions of years from now, he began to narrate, long after city lights and the humans who made them have disappeared from the Earth, other intelligent species might eventually begin to see traces of humanity’s long-since erased presence on the planet.

Consider deep-sea squid, Paglen suggested, who would have billions of years to continue developing and perfecting their incredible eyesight, a sensory skill perfect for peering through the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the oceans—yet also an eyesight that could let them gaze out at the stars in deep space.

Perhaps, Paglen speculated, these future deep-sea squid with their extraordinary powers of sight honed precisely for focusing on tiny points of light in the darkness might drift up to the surface of the ocean on calm nights to look upward at the stars, viewing a scene that will have rearranged into whole new constellations since the last time humans walked the Earth.

And, there, the squid might notice something.

High above, seeming to move against the tides of distant planets and stars, would be tiny reflective points that never stray from their locations. They are there every night; they are more eternal than even the largest and most impressive constellations in the sky sliding nightly around them.

Seeming to look back at the squid like the eyes of patient gods, permanent and unchanging in these places reserved for them there in the firmament, those points would be nothing other than the geostationary satellites Paglen made reference to.

This would be the only real evidence, he suggested, to any terrestrial lifeforms in the distant future that humans had ever existed: strange ruins stuck there in the night, passively reflecting the sun, never falling, angelic and undisturbed, peering back through the veil of stars.

[Image: Star trails, seen from space, via Wikimedia].

Aside from the awesome, Lovecraftian poetry of this image—of tentacular creatures emerging from the benthic deep to gaze upward with eyes the size of automobiles at satellites far older than even continents and mountain ranges—the actual moment of seeing these machines for ourselves is equally shocking.

By now, for example, we have all seen so-called “star trail” photos, where the Earth’s rotation stretches every point of starlight into long, perfect curves through the night sky. These are gorgeous, if somewhat clichéd, images, and they tend to evoke an almost psychedelic state of cosmic wonder, very nearly the opposite of anything sinister or disturbing.

[Image: More star trails from space, via Wikipedia].

Yet in Paglen’s photo “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)”—part of another project of his called The Other Night Sky— something incredible and haunting occurs.

Amidst all those moving stars blurred across the sky like ribbons, tiny points of reflected light burn through—and they are not moving at all. There is something else up there, this image makes clear, something utterly, unnaturally still, something frozen there amidst the whirl of space, looking back down at us as if through cracks between the stars.

[Image: Cropping in to highlight the geostationary satellites—the unblurred dots between the star trails—in “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

The Other Night Sky, Paglen explains, “is a project to track and photograph classified American satellites, space debris, and other obscure objects in Earth orbit.”

To do so, he uses “observational data produced by an international network of amateur satellite observers to calculate the position and timing of overhead transits which are photographed with telescopes and large-format cameras and other imaging devices.”

The image that opens this post “depicts an array of spacecraft in geostationary orbit at 34.5 degrees east, a position over central Kenya. In the lower right of the image is a cluster of four spacecraft. The second from the left is known as ‘PAN.'”

What is PAN? Well, the interesting thing is that not many people actually know. Its initials stand for “Palladium At Night,” but “this is one mysterious bird,” satellite watchers have claimed; it is a “mystery satellite” with “an unusual history of frequent relocations,” although it is to be found in the eastern hemisphere, stationed far above the Indian Ocean (Paglen took this photograph from South Africa).

As Paglen writes, “PAN is unique among classified American satellites because it is not publically claimed by any intelligence of military agency. Space analysts have speculated that PAN may be operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.” Paglen and others have speculated about other possible meanings of the name PAN—check out his website for more on that—but what strikes me here is less the political backstory behind the satellites than the visceral effect such an otherwise abstract photograph can have.

In other words, we don’t actually need Paglen’s deep-sea squid of the far future with their extraordinary eyesight to make the point for us that there are now uncanny constellations around the earth, sinister patterns visible against the backdrop of natural motion that weaves the sky into such an inspiring sight.

These fixed points peer back at us through the cracks, an unnatural astronomy installed there in secret by someone or something capable of resisting the normal movements of the universe, never announcing themselves while watching anonymously from space.

[Image: Cropping further into “PAN (Unknown; USA-207)” by Trevor Paglen, from The Other Night Sky].

For more on Trevor Paglen’s work, including both The Last Pictures and The Other Night Sky, check out his website.