Projects Thinking hard, or hardly thinking?

“Art in Space”

On a cold, dark, Minnesota November evening, after what was, for me, a long week, and for the students, months of work, we shipped Blue Origin two payloads: art, for space.

In November 2019, I was contacted by the kind folks at Playful Learning Lab.

They had conducted a contest with OK Go where middle schoolers and high schoolers could dream up some art that could only happen in space. Two teams were selected, one focused on paint splatters and music, and the other focused on suspended magnets and whirling particle vortexes. The undergraduate team at the Playful Learning Lab worked with the winning student teams and also the engineers at Blue Origin.

Once these payloads were created, they’d be launched on Blue Origin’s New Shepard for an 11-minute suborbital flight into space. Actually, that’s not true! As you may suspect, putting things into space tends to have strict deadlines (and mass requirements!), and the team needed some help getting everything ready in time.

They knew I was handy with microcontrollers and electronics and making solid one-off interactives and worked well under pressure, and wanted to know if I was interested.

WAS I INTERESTED?! Rewind a few years to an interview of mine by Mark Fraunfelder.

Mark asked me what sorts of things I dream of making, and I spouted off a few things, and ended with "I'd love to build something that goes into space."

Long story short, it was like a heist movie and Apollo 13 combined. There was the “gathering the team” intro. I brought in folks I’ve spent a decade or more working with, like Matthew Beckler (with whom I have a set of informal Hardy-Littlewood rules) and some of the folks from Kidzibits (who are great at thinking creatively while creating robust, rock-solid fabrications).

We spent a week or so of long days and nights working with a truly extraordinary team of engineering undergraduate students, covering massive whiteboards with diagrams and frequently dumping everything we had onto a table and saying “We gotta remove off 100 grams from this subassembly.” (100 grams here, 100 grams there, when you only have 500 grams per payload, it really adds up!)

474 grams, or 26 grams under the limit! (Photo credit: Maria Baklund)

There were two projects. Cosmic Song had a paint chamber with sticky paper and bright powder pigment, and what I can’t describe any other way than “a space guitar”, with three strings strung across some aluminum, struck by little solenoids. They were driven in a random way, driven by a procedural combination of the telemetry data from the rocket and a little chamber with a proximity sensor and a ball in it. Once it reached space, the powder chambers opened, the powder vibrated out of the boxes and onto the sticky paper, while the space guitar’s strings get tapped by solenoids. Dark Origin had a series of magnets suspended in the middle of the payload, various types of magnetic debris in chambers, and powerful fans blowing a whirlwind. When it reached space, the chambers opened, the fans blew, and the particles swirled and interacted and coalesced upon the strong suspended magnets.

Art in space.

The “space guitar” (Photo credit: Maria Baklund)

(This showed up on Instagram, but I didn’t want to spill any beans.)

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