Spatial Debris visualization in Scientific American

Some time ago Scientific American approached me to commission me for the creation of a visualization of spatial debris. And there is a lot of spatial debris floating around the earth. Think of abandoned rockets or broken satellites. The purpose of the visualization I created was to illustratie that there is a huge amount of  spatial debris, and not necessarily to provide an exact representation of it. In fact, not all the required data in order to determine exact position of debris and satellites was available in the dataset I received: right ascension and argument of perigee were missing, so I have used random numbers for those. But all the other data to calculate the orbit was there. In order to calculate the orbits of satellites and debris I had to apply Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion.

The graphic has been created in Processing. With all the orbits calculated and the satellites and debris positioned randomly on those orbits, the next thing was to get the color and positioning right. Positioning was rather easy, since it’s just applying some transformations to the image, which resulted in a nice perspective (circles nearby are larger than the ones further away). Coloring was the final step. Initially the idea was to color by country (US, USSR, China and Others), but this resulted in an image with colored dots all over. So to communicate a more focussed message, we decided to show the difference between active satellites (magenta) and spatial debris (black). As a nice extra, the ISS space station is also marked to get an even better sense of the amount of debris.

After completing the project, I played around with the data a little more, just to see if an animated version would have an even greater impact communicating the message. Well, judge for yourself…

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