Transmission Project (part 1)

Madley earth station, Herefordshire, UK

Madley Communications Centre (MCC) is the only operational earth station in the UK. It is located between the Malvern Hills and the Black Mountains, about an hour’s drive south of where I grew up in Shropshire (a very green bit of England next to Wales).

Earth stations are used to communicate with space stations (satellites) from the Earth’s surface. I have never been to Madley, but in mid-April I had a phone conversation with Dr Graham Forth who runs the site. Graham had kindly agreed to discuss my proposal for a project involving radio transmission.

The project was to make a short, one-off image transmission to space, not directed at any known receiver and if possible deliberately missing any known astronomical material.

The idea has something to do with belief, imagination and permanence. The large sculptures I put in the Unit 1 and off-site shows were both destroyed immediately after the show. The U1 piece ‘One of Us’ was conceived as a drawing because it could only persist as an image. (The ‘Artefat’ work with Andrea Rocha was also made too big to outlast the show… perhaps this is a theme?). So I was thinking about the idea of permanence, connected with earlier ideas of value and permission explored in my ongoing series of wire works.

Everything is energy. I think, but I should look into it. Anyway, I came up with the idea that a radio transmission through space would outlast everything.

Electromagnetic energy is absorbed or reflected by the Earth’s atmosphere to different degrees according to wavelength. The longest wavelengths include a range which can be transmitted out from the Earth’s surface with very little atmospheric disruption. After that they travel through space at the speed of light without any interruption at all.

I had emailed the press office at the UK communications regulator, then was passed on to Graham’s team at Madley. It turns out this sort of thing is actually quite simple and they were totally cool about the idea, although perhaps not as interested as I might have hoped.

MCC has been operational since 1978, first linking-up with the Intelsat satellite orbiting more than 22,000 miles above the Indian Ocean. Today its dishes track various communication satellite networks, so they agreed to include the image I sent them amongst the vast and continuous flow of data packets being transmitted. Quite unreasonably they weren’t prepared to realign one of their transmitters for my project, but advised that vastly more signal is lost to space than is absorbed by any satellite receiver.

So it’s done. The image was transmitted at 3:02am on 1 May this year. At time of writing, the image is about 1.4 million million km away… still only 3% of the way to our nearest neighbouring star.