Tianhe 天河区: Parables of the Celestial River — Jol Thomson and Sasha Engelmann

‘Nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world; we are drifting together toward the noise and the black depths of the universe, and our diverse systemic complexions are flowing up the entropic stream, toward the solar origin, itself adrift. Knowledge is at most the reversal of drifting, that strange conversion of times, always paid for by additional drift; but this is complexity itself, which was once called being. Virtually stable turbulence within the flow.’ 

— Michel Serres[1]

Tianhe-2 is a 33.86 petaflop supercomputer, the fastest on the planet, located in southern China in the sub-provincial city of Guangzhou in the eponymous district: Tianhe.  Tianhe, however, is not merely a region within a Chinese province housing the world’s fastest supercomputer of the same name.  Tianhe is also the region where every star we can see with our naked eyes dances in its galactic choreography—it is where we all reside.  Tianhe translates to English as celestial river, and is the Chinese equivalent for ‘Milky Way’.

In the center of Tianhe, our vortical, starry-river home, is what cosmologists call an Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN): a luminous and spectrally saturated accretion of matter amplified by a supermassive black hole.  AGNs are the largest and most persistently radiant objects in the entire cosmos and represent an active area of research in physical cosmology, not least because they are known to emanate extremely energetic particles into the domains of interstellar space.

In the core of Tianhe-2, are over one hundred thousand microprocessors, each a complex silicate lattice with billions of transistors.  Since computation occurs via charged particles within semiconductive microprocessors, any interference by forces, or other charged particles, can cause failures in long-term strings of the computer’s modelling operations, ruining weeks or months of computations.  As processors become smaller and computation becomes more omniscient and ambient, industries have begun to apply ECCs, or Error Correction Code, to deal with the constant environmental bombardment of charged particles, the atmospheric noise that interferes with the circuitous processes of microprocessors.  Given Moore’s Law,[2] the importance of ECCs to the smooth functioning of the computational future should not be underestimated.

天河

In August 1912, the Austrian-American physicist Victor Francis Hess was lured by unexplainable phenomena into the troposphere with a series of six balloon flights.  Hess studied the conductivity of air and the amount of ionization above the Earth’s surface.  His discoveries would win him the Nobel Prize twenty-four years later.  But what he measured still mystifies physicists and astronomers alike, and is the locus of millions of dollars in research and collaboration around the globe.

Reaching an altitude of 5500 metres between Vienna and Germany, Hess discovered an increase in radiation as he ascended past 2km into the troposphere.  This ionizing radiation was soon shown (to great scepticism) to be neither terrestrial (since it increased as one ascended away from the ground) nor solar in origin (as it was shown to radiate at night and during solar eclipses). This unknown radiation—at the dawn of human understanding of radioactivity—was posited to be Galactic in origin, meriting the name cosmic rays.  Decades of subsequent balloon experiments revealed an ionization maximum between 20 and 25 kilometres above Earth’s surface: the Pfotzer Curve.

Cosmic rays and other astrophysical phenomena would also seduce the French space agency, Centre Nationale des Études Spatiales (CNES), into the realm of the Pfotzer Curve: more specifically a threshold spanning the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere, between 20km and 32km high.[3] From the 1970s CNES’ long-duration, stratospheric missions employed the Montgolfiere Infrarouge (MIR) balloon.  The MIR, a solar relative of the Aerocene, dwells in this airy milieu above the paths of airplanes both day and night by exploiting cascades of energy from our nearest star, Sol, as well as the infrared radiation emitted by the Earth – its uses no other gases than air.  MIR and Aerocene freely ride the isopycnal surfaces of this atmospheric ‘critical zone’[4], resonating with exotic perturbations from far beyond the Solar System’s heliospheric reach, eddying in the galactic tide-pools of Tianhe.

A “cosmic dancer on history’s stage,”[5] the Aerocene is part of a legacy of experiments,  initially led by mere noise, lured by specific conditions of the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.  This unique atmospheric zone is the most critical for analyzing Earth’s radiative budget, for measuring turbulence and atmospheric pollution, and for detecting high-energy cosmic rays.  It is also precisely at 20 km that Google is now deploying Project Loon: a fleet of balloons that will beam LTE Internet to Earthbound smartphone users.  Sri Lanka will be the first country to be “covered” by March 2016.[6] Indeed the Earth may soon be veiled by another lattice of processing power, borne by the very thermodynamic infrastructure that has always insulated us and our machines from the cold, dark, deep waves beyond.

The Catatumbo is a river in Venezuela where vast amounts of Ozone is regenerated on a near-nightly basis by the planet’s most consistent lightning storms, storms named after the river over which they emerge an average of 300 times a year.  Earth itself is wondrously illuminated by around 3 million lightning flashes per day (or 40 per second, 1.4 billion a year).  Contrary to common understanding, the ground itself produces upward flowing “positive streamers:” invitations to down-flowing plasmas. [7]  A bolt of lightning is: “a stuttering chatter between the ground and the sky,” during which these fields of virtual potential actualize and equalize for a radiative moment. [8] These electromagnetic surges generate not only atmospheric plasma and Ozone, but also the atmosphere’s extremely low radio frequency of 7.83 Hz: Schumann Resonance.  This means that every atom, molecule, or crystal—the DNA in our mitochondria, the information in fibre-optic cables and the silicate bodies of computer chips—are alive with persistent, electrochemical fields of resonance.  Somewhere, between ground and sky, lightning events, like every beat in a drum roll, continually accentuate and inflect the planet’s elemental vibratory dances.

Such reciprocal, pulsating choreographies light up the bifurcating path of the Aerocene, and other high-altitude objects.  In Floating to Space: The Airship to Orbital Program, John Powell (by no accident a close friend of Tomás Saraceno) describes a ‘Zoo of Lightning.’[9] Such spectacles include “Blue jets,” or azure cones that project from the top of cumulonimbus clouds; “Elves,” or extremely dim discs of light that occur with fiery red “Sprites”; as well as “Gnomes,” “Trolls” and “Pixies.”  All of these high-altitude Transient Luminous Events (TLEs) will in 2017, for the first time, be methodically investigated by CNES’ new Satellite TARANIS, aptly named after the Celtic God of Thunder.

Why are “Trolls” and “Elves” the object of a new satellite mission?  The past 15 years has witnessed the stunning discovery that lightning is a catalyst for Earth’s own emissions of cosmic and gamma radiation,[10]as well as annihilations of antimatter.  In 2009, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope in Earth orbit observed an intense burst of gamma rays and positrons (antimatter) coming out of a thunderstorm over Namibia.  Scientists would not have been surprised to see a few positrons, but the flash detected by Fermi produced about 100 trillion positrons, a phenomenon never previously observed.[11] Our hydrogen-blue Earth creates interference-patterns in celestial tributaries not so unlike those rippling out from Tianhe’s AGN.

天河

What do such parables tell us?  Just as Earth’s electrically charged surface reaches up to the clouds to co-produce lightning (a meeting in mid-air!) so too does the Earth extend its reach, sending its own streamers of ionized and electromagnetic invitation to the corners of the cosmos.  The Earth (and those reading this essay) are not passive to such phenomena.  We are writ into fields of energy and force that are patterned in specific currents.  These are fields that extend from ions to photons to electron cascades, from storms to balloons to microprocessors, from silicates to scripts to cells, and through the genetic codes and enzymes of all Earthly species.

Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene is alive to cosmic energies in the way that the molecules of Earth’s crust are alive to the charge in atmospheric storm-systems, and in the way that the Earth itself is alive to the AGN in the far-off turbulence of the celestial river.  The Aerocene is a cascade experiment with force-fields and phenomena that are far more cosmic, far more promiscuous, than most individuals of our species realize.  Like “Sprites,” “Blue Jets,” and “Elves,” like Victor Hess himself, the Aerocene prehends the charged matter of Earth, the atmosphere, Sol, and Tianhe’s Active Galactic Nuclei, finding, like so many other phenomena, a path to weave between and within.

The genealogy of the Aerocene is composed of the buoyant search for answers to seemingly simple questions, questions that upon investigation become cosmo-logical in scope.  This fact should not be underestimated.  Like the atmospheric noise that confused and drove Hess to the sky, the clapping noise of lightning on distant horizons, the quasi-noise of spacetimematter(s) patternings—these ancient and primordial static-interferences, floating or spinning now, charged and cascading, reaching and joining—these have been great lures for thought, exploration and invention, for physical and epistemological risk and renewal.  Such noisy, wandering potentials are a reminder that terrestrial life is not now, nor has ever been, insulated from the vast astronomical plenum.  And it is thus that we find ourselves, led by an indistinct babel, to detect the whisper of a blackhole-Shiva[12] hinting that yes, indeed, we probably do reside within the luminous logic of a holographic supercomputer of the same name . . . [13]

     Epilogue

Dr. James Gates: What I’ve come to understand is that there are these incredible pictures that contain all the information of a set of equations that are related to String Theory.  And what’s even more bizarre then is when you try to understand these pictures, you find out that buried in them are computer codes just like the type that you find in a browser when you surf the web.  And so I’m left with the puzzle of trying to figure out whether I live in the Matrix or not.

Niel deGrasse Tyson: You’re blowing my mind at this moment. So you’re saying, are you saying your attempt to understand the fundamental operations of Nature leads you to a set of equations that are indistinguishable from the equations that drive search engines and browsers on our computers?

JG: Yes that is correct.

NT: Wait, wait I’m still—I have to just be silent for a minute here… So you’re saying as you dig deeper and deeper [bending over and miming a digging motion] you find computer code writ in the fabric of the cosmos?

JG: Into the equations that we want to use to describe the cosmos, yes.

NT: Computer code.

JG: Computer code.  Strings and bits of ones and zeros.

NT: And it’s not just that it resembles computer code, you’re saying it IS COMPUTER CODE?

JG: … and it’s a special kind of computer code that was invented by a scientist named Claude Shannon in the 1940s. That’s what we find very deeply inside the equations that occur in String Theory and in general in systems that we say are Supersymmetric.[14]

天河

—Jol Thomson and Sasha Engelmann

[1] Michel Serres. Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 83.

[2] Moore’s Law is the observation that approximately every two years since 1975 computational power has doubled (and we could add, miniaturized by a similar factor).  It is suspected that the inherent limit to this doubling is the width of the atom itself, a limit we are already rubbing up against. See: Gibbs, S.  “At the limit of Moore’s law: scientists develop molecule-sized transistors”, The Guardian, July 21, 2015.

[3] I. Sadourny. “The French balloon programme: capabilities and scientific programmes,” Advances in Space Research, 30(5) (2002): 1105-1110.

[4] Bruno Latour. “Some advantages of the notion of “Critical Zone” for geopolitics,” Procedia Earth and Planetary Science, 10 (2014): 3-6.

[5] Mike Davis. “Cosmic Dancers On History’s Stage? The Permanent Revolution in the Earth Sciences.” New Left Review I/217 (1996).

[6] <http://www.theverge.com/2015/7/29/9069961/google-project-loon-internet-sri-lanka>

[7] D.R., MacGorman, et al. The electrical nature of storms. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

[8]  Vicky Kirby. Quantum anthropologies: Life at large. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 10. 

[9] La Frenais, R., Saraceno, T., & Powell, J. “Floating into Deep Space,” European Planetary Science Congress 2014, EPSC Abstracts, Vol. 9, (2014), 843.

[10] Gamma rays are a class of high frequency electromagnetic radiation composed of high energy photons.  Gamma rays are produced when charged cosmic rays interact with atomic nuclei as they escape the vortices of gravitational fields.  As such they serve as beacons for the presence of cosmic rays. 

[11] “Thunderstorms shoot antimatter beams into space” National Geographic News (2011) <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/01/110111-thunderstorms-antimatter-beams-fermi-radiation-science-space/>

[12] “Shiva” is the name given by Stephen Jay Gould to the pattern or “cycle of impacts [of objects on Earth] driven by a galactic tide, probably the Sun’s vertical oscillation in the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy.” Shiva-shakti is also the processual Hindu god of destruction and transformation.

[13] Nick Bostrom.”Are we living in a computer simulation?” The Philosophical Quarterly 53.211 (2003) 243-255. See also, Beane, S.R., et al. “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation,” arXiv preprint arXiv:1210.1847 (2012).

[14] “The Theory of Everything”, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2011) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sMBCTpsvH0>

Aerocene: Becoming Aerosolar — A collaboration between Tomás Saraceno and MIT

Aerocene: Becoming Aerosolar
A collaboration between Tomás Saraceno, Visiting Artist MIT

Leila Kinney, MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST)
Lodovica Illari and Bill McKenna, MIT Department of Earth, Air and Planetary Sciences

 

Introduction

One of the oddest sensations of hot air balloon flight is the feeling of absolute stillness and extreme quiet.  A paradox:  moving with the wind eliminates the feeling of wind and thus a feeling of movement. Tomás Saraceno is fascinated by – or, more accurately, creatively obsessed by – airborne movement of all kinds, from the astonishing phenomenon of “kiting” spiders that create parachutes of gossamer silk, catch updrafts and drift through the jet stream to propel themselves hundreds of miles from land, to the ongoing series of prototypes for floating biospheres fueled by wind and solar power that he has created for more than fifteen years, Air-Port /Cloud-Cities. They are speculative models for alternate ways of living – and alternate ways of flying. Saraceno would like to propose zero-carbon emission flight; make your reservations now for Aerosolar Airlines, as he has been known to say!

As the inaugural Visiting Artist for MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), beginning in Fall 2012, Saraceno brought these multifaceted interests into creative dialogue with multiple departments across the Institute.  Moving among practical, theoretical and hypothetical considerations, Saraceno discussed everything from nanoengineered materials to solar energy to weather patterns to the origins of the universe, asking architects, engineers and scientists in diverse fields to imagine with him what a different reality might look like.  A wide-ranging foray into disparate areas of expertise led Saraceno to develop a productive collaboration with Lodovica Illari, a climatologist whose specialty is large scale atmospheric dynamics, and Bill McKenna, whose architectural training led him to her EAPS (Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences) lab to work on visualizations of geophysical fluid dynamics.  Sharing a mission “to make people understand what is not intuitive” (her words), they began with “Weather in a Tank,”[1] a series of rotating fluid laboratory experiments created by Illari and Professor John Marshall.   

Aerocene is the latest node in Tomás Saraceno’s continuous experimentation with solar balloons, which include his own do-it-yourself versions, (e.g., 59 steps to be on air by sun power, 2003), crowd-sourced variations made with plastic shopping bags (Museo Aero Solar, ongoing since 2007,) and a residency at CNES (Centre Nationale d’Études Spatiales), spent immersed in studying their MIR (Montgolfière Infrarouge) solar balloon flights.  Now Illari and McKenna have used the MIR flight data to visualize the possibilities for a new series of solar balloons that could monitor the chemical components of the stratosphere and measure their effect on climate change.  But there is more than a gathering scientific data in the offing.  In keeping with his capacity to work at multiple scales, modes of expression and registers of engagement, Saraceno also sees these balloons as “lighter-than-air sculptures” and as an opportunity for a highly distributed network of participants to monitor their progress, predict the weather collectively, and raise awareness of our technological disruptions of planet Earth.  The scenarios outlined below link technical expertise to visionary thinking and material realities to a future “jet stream art research center” – “Cloud Cities” in the making.

 

An example from the past

Montgolfiere InfraRouge (MIR)

Tomás Saraceno is a visionary artist who is constantly pushing the boundaries of our imagination. He has been fascinated by clouds and lighter-than-air balloons for many years – see his Cloud City exhibition [2]. Recently he has fallen in love with infrared/solar balloon technology which he has dubbed ‘aerosolar’; a balloon with zero energy consumption that can fly using radiation from the sun during the day and radiation from earth during the night. This technology, originally developed by CNES (the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales) [3] in the 1970’s, can be used as an inspiration, Saraceno believes, for how mankind could begin to live in symbiosis with the earth, sparking the imagination and inspiring the public think about conservation at a time when the earth is at risk from overpopulation and climate change.

The aerosolar balloon is ‘zero-energy’ and yet can circumnavigate the globe much like the albatross of the southern oceans, but flying much higher, even up in to the stratosphere. One could imagine using such balloons to monitor the ozone and other chemicals in the troposphere and stratosphere with nearly zero energy cost – except for the helium or hot air needed to lift the balloon in to its initial orbit.

In collaboration with Saraceno, our group at MIT has studied the data from past balloon flights carried out by CNES, and begun planning future flights of smaller balloons that are being developed with Saraceno and his group.

Since 1971 CNES has been supporting a program of long-duration scientific flights using hot air balloons, MIR (Montgolfiere InfraRouge). The MIR is a very light hot-air balloon, which is heated by direct and reflected solar fluxes during the day and upwelling infrared fluxes from the Earth at night (see Fig1).

Fig.1 MIR radiative budget (left), MIR flight profile (right)
Letrenne et al (1999): French Long Duration Balloon Activity: The InfraredMontgolfiere (MIR), Proceedings AIAA International Balloon Technology Conference,  28 June – 1 July, 1999, Norfolk, VA.

Fig.1 (left) shows the MIR radiative budget. The balloon is heated by upwelling infrared fluxes from the earth during night–time and direct and reflected solar fluxes during day-time. The first ascent from the ground is made possible using helium gas. After 2 or 3 days the helium is completely evacuated and the MIR then flies only using hot air –see Fig.1 (right).

The MIR balloons have been used to perform tropical and trans-polar stratospheric flights. As an example we describe a flight in 2004, when the balloon travelled from Brazil to Australia rising and falling in the stratosphere over the diurnal cycle, whilst being carried along by the prevailing winds.

 

MIR flight from Brazil to Australia (February, 2004)

As shown in Fig.2 and 3, the balloon cycles up and down in the stratosphere following the sun’s diurnal cycle, as it is carried by the winds from Brazil to Australia. During the day it rises and it sinks at night.

Fig 2: The path of the solar balloon between February 2nd to 14th 2004 as it flies from Brazil to Australia. Colors along the track represent the altitude of the balloon: orange/red = high altitude, purple/blue = low altitude.
Also shown is a meridional (S-N) section of the zonal-average zonal wind (flow from the west is in cyan/blue and flow from the east in pink/gold). Following the flow from the east, typical of the tropical lower stratosphere at this time of the year, the balloon moves up and down between the heights of 30 km at day and 20 km at night.

Fig 3:  Map of the zonal wind at 30 mb on Feb 14, 2004. The balloon can be seen to be drifting from east to west, following the prevailing tropical flow in the southern hemisphere: blue indicates a wind from the west to east, pink and yellow from the east to west.

 

Trajectories for February 2004

Using NCEP reanalysis data from February 2004, MIR virtual flight trajectories have been computed beginning from lots of initial launch points over all of S. America. Most of the trajectories reveal a flow from east to west over the central Pacific. These are the winds that the actual balloon was embedded in, as can be seen from the balloon track on the left of Fig. 4.

Fig. 4 (left) – Observed path of the balloon from February 2nd to 14th 2004, as it flies from Brazil to Australia – daytime is marked orange, nighttime is marked violet.
(right) 30 mb trajectories in February 2004 (10 days travel) at the same time as the MIR flight. Trajectories are colored with the direction of the wind: blue from the west to east, pink and yellow from the east to west, as in Fig.2.
Initial launch positions for the trajectories are over South America.

MIR flight and ozone (February, 2004)

The MIR balloon could be a great tool to monitor the ozone distribution in the stratosphere if it were instrumented with an appropriate measuring devise. The following images show the track of the 2004 balloon flight together with the observed ozone distribution at that time. In Fig.4 we see it sampling high ozone concentration in the stratosphere along the equator. See Marshall et al. (below, under References 2) for the impact of the ozone on climate.

Fig. 5 (top) Section is showing vertical distribution of ozone during the flight period – purple/white indicates high ozone concentrations.  Ozone has a minimum concentration in the troposphere and a maximum in the tropical lower stratosphere at a height of around 30km.  (bottom) During the day the balloon flies just below the region of maximum ozone concentration, moving from east to west, as seen in Fig 3.

The CNES explored conditions during the year when it was best to fly a hot air balloon.
The period of the flight was carefully chosen to maximize solar and infrared radiation thus prolonging the duration of the flight, as shown in Fig.6.

Fig. 6 A statistical analysis of upward IR fluxes from SCARAB satellite during 5 years (1994-1999) compared to the computed IR flux curve sufficient to stabilize the MIR at low level for the season and latitude given.

Fig.6 shows that the least favorable conditions are encountered primarily in the middle and higher latitudes, due to the combined occurrence of dense cloud formation in the troposphere at these latitudes and relatively high temperature in the lower stratosphere. Clouds act to shield the balloon from upwelling infrared radiation resulting in the air temperature inside the balloon falling during the night, and reducing the necessary buoyancy needed to keep it afloat. The most favorable period and ideal latitudinal zone is found 25 degrees in Austral summer and 15 in Austral winter. It is for this reason that CNES chose to launch the balloon in February at the latitude of 25S.

Looking to the future

When and where would it be best to launch a balloon?  How do we choose?

To get a better idea it is important to check the climatological distribution of the wind throughout the year. Fig.7 shows isosurfaces of the zonal wind in January (left) and July (right): inside this surface the wind speed is greater than 25 m/s. It is clear that in the Northern hemisphere flow tends to be strong and mostly toward the east in winter. A band of flow from east to west tends to dominate the tropical atmosphere, but its location shifts with the seasons as the Hadley Cell migrates.

Fig. 7 (top) Isosurface ofwind speed (u >25 m/s) during January, showing a prevalent flow from west to east (blue) in the northern hemisphere, while flow is from the east to west (pink) (u <-25 m/s) in the southern hemisphere. (bottom) ) as above but for July, showing that at this time of the year the flow from the east is strong close to the equator, while in the southern hemisphere the flow tends to be from the west (NCEP Climatology).

Fig. 8 Hovmoller diagram of the zonal wind as a function of time – months of the year. Flow from west to east is marked in cyan/blue, flow from east to west is marked in pink/orange.  (left) flow in thestratosphere at 30 mb and (right) flow in thetroposphere at 250mb.

Hovmoller diagrams at various pressure levels, as in Fig.8, can help us choose the appropriate time of the year to launch a balloon along specific tracks. If we want to fly a balloon from Brazil to Australia in the stratosphere, we should choose a month such as January or February. In fact several MIR flights in the tropical stratosphere were launched from Brazil or Ecuador in February (Fig. 2).

Similarly let’s suppose we want to fly a balloon from Boston to Paris: when would a launch lead to the fastest travel time? We find that it is also best to launch in January or February, when the flow from west to east at the jet level (250 mb) is very strong, as can be seen in Fig.8 (right).

Trajectories from current forecast data for the stratosphere

Ifwe were planning to launch a balloon in to [AA1] the stratosphere from South America now, in October 2015, as we write this article, where might it be carried by the prevailing winds? We can use the NCEP global model (GFS) forecast data[5] to figure this out.

Fig.9 shows typical trajectories at 30 mb starting from different locations over South America. It is clear a track from east to west is dominant at low latitudes, whereas at high latitudes and close to the equator it is from west to east.

Fig. 9 Trajectories at 30mb in October 2015. They show 10 days travel, starting from grid point locations over South America – see upper corner map for initial locations. Trajectories are computed using the GFS forecast data (GFS model run from October 12th, 2015) – cyan/blue = flow from the west, pink/orange = flow from the east.

 

Trajectories from forecast data in the troposhere – for Paris

What about launching a balloon in the troposphere at the jet level to try to reach Paris from the US at this time of year (October)? Where would it likely go?

To estimate where we might launch the balloon, we have computed backward trajectory for 5 days starting at locations near Paris in western Europe – see Fig.10.

Fig. 10 Trajectories at 250 mb in October 2015 (October 20, 2015). Left imageshows travel aftter 1day, centerafter3 days, right after 5 days.  Flow from the west is marked in cyan/blue, flow from the east is marked in pink/orange. Backward trajectories have been computed using forecast data (GFS model) from locations over western Europe.

In October the flow is typically not very zonal, and therefore, it is not surprising that we might reach Paris in 5 days starting from very different locations over the US, for example, Texas, the East Coast or even the Caribbean Islands.

 

Summary

Tomás Saraceno’s vision of flying solar balloons between cities might be too futuristic, but this technology could be used to sense the lower stratosphere at zero energy cost, although some helium might be used at the launch time. The lower stratosphere is a critical layer where the chemistry of ozone, methane and other chemicals has a fundamental impact on our climate. Concentrations of these chemicals are not well known and there is a clear need to better monitor these constituents.

To summarize our view into the future, we have computed trajectories at two levels, 30 mb and 300 mb, starting from all world airports – Fig11.

Fig. 11 Horizontal trajectories at two levels and at two time periods. Trajectories are seeded from all world airports. One single path shows travel time of 12 hours, snapshots are 6 days apart. (Integration begins on February 4th, 2004). Top panel: trajectories at 30 mb. Bottom panel: trajectories at 200 mb. (Trajectory calculations by Prof. Glenn Flierl, MIT [6])

It is evident from Fig.11 that at 30 mb, in the lower troposphere, after 6 days of travel, the balloons would have sampled most of the continental area over the earth, but with gaps over the ocean. On the other hand, because the balloons need IR radiation at night, there are only limited regions on the earth where the balloons can stay up for a long period – see Fig.6 – these are mainly the regions of sinking of the Hadley cell where there are no clouds.  This is a big limitation at the moment but we feel that it is worth revisiting the possibilities of flying some solar balloons again to measure the stratosphere more accurately than has been done in the past.

The IR/solar balloons could be the answer. With their low energy consumption they are the best example of green technology for atmospheric sensing! 

Note: Integrated Data Viewer4 (Unidata) [7] was used for most of the plots.

Acknowledgements

Lodovica Illari acknowledges support from the Frontiers in Earth Science Dynamics (FESD) ‘Ozone and Climate Project’ of the National Science Foundation (US).
Bill McKenna acknowledges support from MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) and Prof. Glenn Flierl (EAPS).  Tomás Saraceno has been a Visiting Artist with CAST since 2012.

References

(1) CNES (MIR)

[1] Montgolfiere InfraRouge:  https://cnes.fr/fr/web/CNES-fr/9276-mir-principes-du-vehicule.php
Letrenne, et al. (1999): French Long Duration Balloon Activity: The Infrared Montgolfiere (MIR), Proceedings AIAA International Balloon Technology Conference, 28 June – 1 July, 1999, Norfolk, VA.

(2) MIT (EAPS)

John Marshall, Susan Solomon, Lodovica Illari. Frontiers in Earth System Dynamics: NSF-funded project on the climate implications of the ozone hole: : http://ozoneandclimate.squarespace.com/

(3) NCEP (Global Forecast System)

GFS: http://www.emc.ncep.noaa.gov/

(4) UCAR (Unidata)

Integrated Data Viewer (IDV): http://www.unidata.ucar.edu/software/idv/

Alter-engineered Worlds — Nicholas Shapiro

In our late industrial times, two weighty terrestrial infrastructures appear inescapable when becoming unstuck from the earth’s surface. Whether it is gasoline in propeller planes, kerosene in jet engines, propane in hot air balloons, or helium in stratospheric balloons, going up isn’t possible without drilling down. The actual burning of fuel in commercial airplanes, pumping out innumerable ultrafine particles and 50 pounds of CO2 for every mile traveled, is the final corrosive sputter of an already environmentally costly hydrocarbon extraction process. The second set of infrastructures—less materially manifest than the mesh of pipelines, condensate tanks, drill rigs, frack chemical impoundments, water trucks, refineries, and compressor stations that establish landscapes of oil and gas extraction—are those that maintain intellectual property.  Aircrafts like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are the vibrating embodiments of over 1000 patents and many more proprietary secrets.[1] The Aeroscene is poised to de- and re-engineer the hydrocarbon and intellectual property infrastructures that envelop our world. Let us consider the stratospheric helium balloon as both a seemingly innocuous form of air travel and one closely allied to the form of loft that enticed you to this exhibition and now to this page. Helium–rich natural gas is, and has always been, the only source of commercially available helium. Although not itself a greenhouse gas or toxic to biotic life, helium—the most noble gas—is implicated in the vast infrastructure for extracting natural gas (i.e. methane). For helium balloons to gently ascend into the atmosphere we also need the drilling capacities and pipeline systems of a world hungry for natural gas. During the extraction and transportation of natural gas, methane—some 14 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2—is routinely released, vented and leaked into the atmosphere. These emissions amount to the largest source of methane-release in the United States, the largest producer of helium.[2] But such extractive infrastructures are not limited to what industry and regulators consider as infrastructure. We must also include slow valve leaks, permitted airborne emissions, fragmented habitats from millions of miles of pipeline, and the alarming effects of endocrine disruptors released in the wresting and refining process as fundamental aspects of the natural gas–cum–helium infrastructure. These regular excesses are precisely what Michelle Murphy has referred to as chemical infrastructures that materially and unevenly shape human and non-human life in time and space.”[3] The inclusion of fugitive—and sometimes insensible—chemicals into our understanding of infrastructure is not a mere provocation. It is an acknowledgement, long past due, of the chemically suffused and sculpted nature of life in our contemporary moment. The Aerocene, also past due, recognizes other unseen but much more ancient earthly infrastructures. Its dream worlds do not run on the technological domination of natural resources. Rather, the project begins by attuning to and moving with the forces that animate our planet—more of a calculated and informed submission to global forces than a mastery over them. Conceiving of wind and solar rays as critical infrastructures for the ongoing present demands that our desires be re-engineered through forgotten supply chains: the planet’s shared and circulating atmosphere. These currents of interest are not merely the aerial flows that propelled a nautical yesteryear but multiple, overlapping, dynamic, and sometimes countercurrent atmospheric strata that have only recently become model able in their full complexity.  In this way, the Aeroscene denotes an epoch of slippery temporalities, of pasts–becoming–future and of futures–becoming–present. Saraceno’s vision is not undergirded by restorative nostalgia for a romanticized non-technological past but a reflective nostalgia[4] that pulls centuries–old technologies and the fabulations of science fiction into the same frame. As balloons were already wistful novelties during the 19th century and solar balloons have not yet been fully realized for flight, tense (past perfect, future anterior, etc.) begins breaking loose when trying to locate the Aeroscene. It is a chronotrope without the ‘golden spikes’ of terrestrial eras, one that’s movement is already enjoyed by the fungal, avian, insect, and bacterial species that regularly cruse within atmospheric currents. Humans are only now warming to its promise and rising to its challenge. The Aeroscene does not entail becoming the wind and turning one’s back on terra. Look elsewhere for an escapist fantasy.  Instead, it engages our besmirched earth, the toxic chemical infrastructures that suffuse life, and the corrosive happenings that condition both biotic and geologic beings. It does this in two ways. First and foremost, the Aeroscene severs the link between aerospace exploration and petrochemical exploitation by providing an alternative to hydrocarbon–derived loft. It establishes a destination for environmentalist dreams that bristle with critique of the present but are rightfully weary of roosting among the ‘viable futures’ touted by industry. Every aeroscenic balloon flight is a humble step toward weaning off mined deposits and extinguishing the human and ecological impacts of a world engineered around hydrocarbon extraction. Second, Saraceno harnesses the fledgling days of the Aeroscene to monitor Earth’s current chemical infrastructures. Equipping these balloons with sensors, they could be variously used to monitor stratospheric ozone levels, measure tropospheric particulate matter levels in the cities, trawl the oceans for microplastics, assess methane releases from pipelines, track ocean acidification, or enumerate shale-field flares.[5] In the Aeroscene, global infrastructural change emerges in tandem with hyperlocal environmental engagement and knowledge production.

Louisiana wetlands facing contamination by BP oil spill in 2010

The exact instrumental payloads will be determined iteratively through a series of boots–on–the–ground workshops and in consultation with leading scientists. While the balloons will float freely, they will be tethered to the specific desires and needs of communities with whom they share airspace.  The Aerocene will become a platform for civic technoscience that pluralizes how and who can make authoritative claims about the environment. The project’s ability to proliferate on the ground–its uptake, reproduction and alteration by diverse winds of human ingenuity beyond the individual hand of the artist—stems from its open hardware methodology. This now brings us back to intellectual property and the infrastructures of knowledge distribution. Sublimating into the Aerocene cannot be done using the same methods and tools that constructed our current hydrocarbon–dependent planet.  Placing Aerocene designs in the creative commons, gives rise to a new flow of knowledge, circulation of capital, transparency of research, and idea of property that runs in diametric opposition to those that constitute and dominate the Anthropocene. Open licensing is just one, albeit gigantic, step towards a more just and socially democratized planetary atmosphere. As the Open Source Hardware Statement of Principles outlines, the bottlenecks in making material technologies truly open, easily modifiable, and adaptable to divergent contexts are not limited to licensing: “open source hardware uses readily–available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware.”[6]

To continue our focus on stratospheric balloons, take Google’s Project Loon as an example. The project involves flying a large number of stratospheric helium balloons across the Southern Hemisphere to broadcast LTE internet connections to otherwise offline communities. Sri Lanka may well achieve universal internet coverage via Loon by the time this newspaper goes to print. The project has tallied some 200 patents, which tech pundits read as a sign of its immanent success. Loon has created their own automated balloon manufacturing facility. Balloons that initially only lasted a few hours in the air now stay aloft in the upper layers of the atmosphere for over a hundred days. But the steps to exponentially increase the life of these balloons remain stuck behind the enclosures of corporate secrecy.  Their production process requires specialized machines and vast amounts of capital. Beautifully simple innovations such as Google’s patent #US20140252163 A1, which rotates darker or lighter sides of the balloon towards the sun to increase or decrease elevation and catch winds of different directions, will remain legally out of reach to aspiring aeronauts for the next two decades. Even more troubling is that a similar, if not more advanced, design of this kind was featured in the Journal of the Balloon Federation of America in 1978.[7] Patents can colonize preexisting knowledge not just safeguard hard fought and capitally intensive developments. By contrast, the Aerocene can begin with the open–licensed plans for a tetrahedron solar balloon. The balloon costs $25 in materials–a plastic drop cloth, scissors and an ordinary iron. Its assembly process is meticulously documented, and the design has been freely available on the internet since 2009.[8]  To keep our balloons aloft at night we could, when the sun sets, bring very small magnets into contact with magnetotactic bacterium that emit heat when exposed to magnetic fields. If any of our longer term and higher-tech balloons need extra lift during launch to reach the upper stratosphere we can collect helium being emitted from natural thermal springs such as those in Maire de Santenay, some 334 kilometers south of Paris’ Grand Palais, without need for mining. I could go on, but the point here is not to conjecture technical possibilities but to underline the knowledge infrastructures necessary for germinal collective dreaming to take place. Through open development Saraceno multiplies both those who can contribute to the project and who can directly benefit from it.  In this way the Aerocene bucks the assumption of industrial capitalism, namely, that the practices and infrastructures that beckoned our present environmental crises can also get us out of it. — Nicholas Shapiro Notes: [1] Cindy Naucler Glickert, “Guarding the ‘Gold’: Protecting Boeing innovations is critical to maintaining a competitive advantage,” Boeing Frontiers (2010): 38-40. [2] Predecessors to helium balloons were no less implicated.  The 19th and early 20th centuries balloons were almost universally filled with coal gas, which is a mixture of hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. [3] Michelle Murphy Michelle, “Chemical Infrastructures of the St Clair River,” in Toxicants, Health and Regulation Since 1945, ed. Boudia and Jased (Routledge, 2013): 105. [4] Jacob Dlamini, “Native Nostalgia” (Jacana Media, 2009). [5] This last use of high-altitude and low-cost balloons as has been attempted by our colleagues at SkyTruth. http://skytruth.org/updated-skytruthing-the-bakken-field-report/ [6] Open Source Hardware Association “Open Source Hardware (OSHW) Statement of Principles 1.0” http://www.oshwa.org/definition/ [7] Dick Brown, “SUNSTAT: A Balloon that Rides on Sun Beams,” Ballooning: The Journal of the Balloon Federation of America (1987): 5-9. http://www.brisbanehotairballooning.com.au/wp-content/uploads/SunstatArticleinBallooning.pdf [8] First uploaded in 2009 http://www.headfullofair.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/thekissballoon2.pdf and updated in 2012 http://publiclab.org/notes/mathew/5-29-2012/solar-hot-air-balloons This balloon building guide was written by my Public Lab collaborator Mathew Lippincott, who provided invaluable research assistance in the preparation of this essay.