— Work in Progress —

Art in Orbit: The Space Synapse System and the Symbiotic Sphere

Anna Hill
Space Synapse Ltd
The Digital Depot, Dublin

In emptiness, forms are born. When one becomes empty of assumptions, inferences, and judgments he has acquired over the years, he comes close to his original nature and is capable of conceiving original ideas and reacting freshly.

Zen Tenet

In the Western mindset, technological advancement often serves to reinforce the assumptions of a rational, materialist culture. This is evident in the expressions of our technological platforms in medical, military and space technologies that filter down into societal expectations and behavior patterns mirrored in the consumables and the media we produce. As an interdisciplinary artist, I am interested in ways in which technology may be used to shift paradigms and refresh the agenda in an inspired and integral way that may have positive human impact on global society and culture.

On Earth, what happens if we begin to listen to those traditionally excluded from technology, and how can their voices benefit their empowerment with spin-off benefits to the evolution of mainstream culture?

From space, life is viewed systemically both on macro and micro scales. On a macro scale, Earth is viewed from space as a beautiful and connected living system embodying connectivity between people and the planet. On a micro level, space gives us insight into living systems for example through the systems science of space engineering that is able to sustain human life in extreme conditions.

I am interested in how this unique overview can change our social evolutionary path and the way we evolve as a global community. Space has as much relevance to protecting indigenous and diverse culture and ecosystems as it has to informing and inspiring new and sustainable technologies.

In October 2004, I attended the 55th International Astronautical Congress, where I delivered a paper and received extraordinary insight from interdisciplinary expertise in various space-related fields ranging from the psychology of survival to reconfigurable technologies for lunar and Mars exploration. I have returned with a renewed conviction of the relevance of making this information accessible to a wider public so it may become relevant to issues on Earth.

This work in progress statement describes The Space Synapse System, an interactive artwork to be installed in the Columbus Module of the International Space Station (ISS) for a projected launch date in 2007. The work is about distributing the human experience of space travel, in particularly the experience of shifted consciousness that occurs when humans travel into space. While my initial motivations for the project were the anthropological relevance to environmental and human concerns on Earth and the spiritual and poetic insight that space travel offers artists, the project has rapidly become a multi-bodied Russian doll. New and more intricate insights into life in space and the relevance of space to life on Earth are unraveling from a multitude of perspectives. In the end, space travel may tell us as much about ourselves as it can about space [1]. As Space Shuttle astronaut Joseph P. Allen notes:

With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may be in fact be the most important reason [1].

Figure 1: ‘Vaisseau devant la Lune.’
	  Illustration by Fernand Fau.
Figure 1: ‘Vaisseau devant la Lune.’ Illustration by Fernand Fau.
In Novelles aventures: Les Robinsons lunaires, by Georges Le Faure. Paris: E. Dentu, 1893.
© Maison d'Ailleurs / Agence Martienne.

Overview of the Space Synapse System

The Space Synapse System consists of a number of key components: the Symbiotic Sphere, which will be on board the ISS in Earth orbit, and a number of nodes (‘synapses’) – virtual, educational and mobile – situated on Earth and on board the ISS. Together, the Symbiotic Sphere and the synapses constitute a distributed participatory system. The Earth synapses will interpret scientific data collected in space to interact with cultural interfaces on Earth. Each synapse is responsible for absorbing and emitting data flows and is subject to interaction with users in its location. Data sources will include still images, moving images, audio and data flows transformed by algorithms within the Space Synapse software.

Figure 2: The Space Synapse System
Figure 2: The Space Synapse System.

The Space Synapse users are the astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS in Earth orbit, and the European (and global) digital community on Earth. The users will be active participants and contributors to the data flow, as the Space Synapse represents a learning and generative system. The objective is to provide creative inspiration for space technology transfer using software development as ‘the glue’ to knit together the Space Synapse Digital Community. This allows the International Space Station, a piece of high-end expensive technology, to be used by many cultures and societal groups. Citizens of the global community who do not normally have access to space technology will be able to experience the educational benefits of cutting-edge scientific developments in a way that is relevant to their interests and needs.

The Symbiotic Sphere

Feminised like ships for early navigation, the Symbiotic Sphere is a metallic sphere that embodies the idea of wholeness, peaceful co-existence, perfection, the music of the spheres and a layering of evolutionary and bio-cosmic time. Designed as a free-floating sculpture for zero gravity, she is inspired and informed by the aesthetics and functions of early instruments of navigation, astronomy, scientific enquiry and time keeping – tools that in their time brought together scientific and aesthetic modalities.

Figure 3: The Symbiotic
Figure 3: The Symbiotic Sphere. 3D Modeling by Mat Wardle.

The Symbiotic Sphere will be hand fabricated using precious etched metals and gems from the Earth's five continents applied in planetary proportion. Space materials such as lunar tektite and space dust may ornament the piece further. On the sphere's surface will be a number of discs made from an optically clear protective material, such as soft inflatable or convex rubber. The discs serve dual functions: they work as portals for camera and projection hardware inside the sphere and at the same time protect the artwork and the astronauts when the sphere is floating freely in zero gravity inside the space station.

When not floating inside the space station, the Symbiotic Sphere will rest in a docking device made of translucent epoxy resin or cast clear plastic or rubber that contains hardware with lights that pulsate according to information flow. The intention is that the astronauts will bring out the Symbiotic Sphere for interaction sessions on a regular basis. She may be handheld, anchored within the module's interior for specific data collection or simply allowed to roam free through the interior of the module. When in the dock, she recharges, learns and exchanges information within the Space Synapse System.

  The Symbiotic Sphere will be able to illuminate electronically and communicate wirelessly. Fibre optic lights will pulsate to indicate the activity within the system and the position of the Space Station's orbit. When free-floating through the module, the Symbiotic Sphere observes and records the surroundings, creating video and stills captured via the module's portal on outer space and astronauts' interaction within. Astronauts can interact with her via imagery projected from the Space Synapse System and the Symbiotic Sphere onto astronauts' hands and living quarters. In addition, she will connect the astronauts with bio-cosmic sounds through a wireless (possibly holophonic) headset, modulating life forms and frequencies on Earth with the astronauts' biological rhythms in space and sounds from the Space Synapse System.

The Symbiotic Sphere is intended to allude to both micro and macro space and time. Protective portals will contain various micro views. Through one of the optically clear portals rests a Venus time watch where a day lasts more than Earth's year, juxtaposing Earth-centric and cosmological time scales and biorhythms. Another will contain fossilized stromatolite, the earliest life form on Earth. The Symbiotic Sphere will embody our changing perception of ourselves, the planet Earth and the Universe we inhabit, through the advances of both culture and science. She is inspired by humankind's consistent curiosity that strives to explore and adapt to new territories using creative and evolutionary tools.

History and Timeline: From Artist's Residency to Space Agency

The project began during a residency at the Fire Station Artists' Studios in Dublin, who provided me with the support to initiate the project in 2001/2002. In March 2002, I produced a CDROM and brochure that described the concept. After a lot of red tape in the succeeding year, I finally presented the project to the European Space Agency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in March 2003.

In September 2003, I embarked on my first European Space Agency contract in the context of the General Studies Programme. The ESTEC contract was for a preliminary analysis for an interactive artwork for the European Module of the International Space Station. The creative vision had to stand up to both user requirements and scientific analysis. I worked with a small team of consultants during this phase, paying particular attention to the space safety and technical feasibility considerations.

The final review was successfully delivered to an enthusiastic response at ESTEC in May 2004. In May, I also presented the project to the 7th Workshop on Space and the Arts organised by Leonardo/OLATS and ESA at ESTEC in the Netherlands.

In October 2004 I presented a paper in a session on ‘The Sights and Sounds of Space’ at the International Astronautical Congress in Canada.

The next contract is currently in negotiation and will involve my startup company Space Synapse Ltd working with an international team of subcontractors and consultants developing the space and terrestrial software systems. I will produce an appearance model prototype of the Symbiotic Sphere during this phase and develop the terrestrial networks.

Launch into space is projected for 2007/8.


During the feasibility analysis, Space Synapse Ltd worked with a small team of consultants including Skytek, Matterialize, Technology Troubleshooter, now part of ESP Technologies, and Northburgh.

Space Synapse Ltd is in the process of appointing postdoctorate researchers from space-related fields to strengthen the anthropological and innovative design and technology foundation. This will allow for sustainable future research and development.

A special thanks to the Maison d'Ailleurs science fiction collection in Switzerland for their generous research assistance and to the Fire Station Artists' Studios who provided me with the support to initiate the project.


Frank White. The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

About the Author

Anna Hill completed her BA in Fine Art Sculpture at Saint Martin's School of Art in 1990 and later took up a bursary for an MA in Fine Art Sculpture at the Royal College of Art. She has been resident in Dublin, Ireland for four years, working as artist in residence at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and then at the Fire Station Artists' Studios. She developed her Space Synapse Project during this time following on from her MA thesis on the relationship of mind to matter and quantum consciousness. Anna Hill remains a practicing artist and is CEO of Space Synapse Ltd, which is situated in Dublin's Digital Hub.

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