Of Art and Satellites

satellites
SpooQy-1 ejected from ISS into space (Photo: NASA)

A quotation from The Golden Record 2.0 — a play written for the NUS Arts Festival — and a high-tech quantum device from the NUS Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) are now orbiting in space together. They are being carried by a satellite called SpooQy-1 built by CQT to test a quantum light source that could enable future secure communication. This space mission commemorates three years of art-science collaboration between CQT and the NUS Centre For the Arts (CFA).

“Scientists and artists have in common that they are curious explorers of the world. Through our collaborations, we hope to inspire more people to share our appetite for learning. Even people who think they aren’t interested in science may find they appreciate its value when they encounter it through arts — and vice versa,” said CQT Director Professor Artur Ekert.

In partnership with CFA, CQT Principal Investigator Associate Professor Alexander Ling, who leads the team that built SpooQy-1, selected a quote from The Golden Record 2.0 which was first performed in 2018, to engrave on the outside of the shoebox-sized satellite. The quote is from Mrs Santha Bhaskar, Artistic Director of NUS Indian Dance and recipient of the Singapore Cultural Medallion. It reads, “We are all different nationals, we are entangled together with all the races”, and is etched into a 10cm by 3cm aluminium plate that is part of the satellite’s standard structure.

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The quote engraved onto the satellite’s structure

The selection of this quote honours Mrs Bhaskar’s long-standing contributions to CFA and her previous collaboration with CQT. Her work Sambhavna was staged in the 2016 and 2017 editions of the NUS Arts Festival. For the two-year development of the project, she was appointed a CQT Outreach Fellow.

The quote celebrates the strength of Singapore’s diversity and a hope for such understanding in a globalised world, said CFA Director, Ms Sharon Tan. “This collaboration with CQT for The Golden Record exemplifies our efforts in encouraging cross disciplinary projects in NUS,” she added.Scientists and artists have in common that they are curious explorers of the world. Through our collaborations, we hope to inspire more people to share our appetite for learning. Even people who think they aren’t interested in science may find they appreciate its value when they encounter it through arts — and vice versa.— Prof Artur Ekert, CQT Director

The quantum device on board SpooQy-1 is designed to create the quantum property of entanglement between pairs of light particles, to work towards developing encryption keys. Renowned physicist Albert Einstein once described this entanglement as “spooky action at a distance” and this is where the satellite’s name was derived.

SpooQy-1 was first launched to the International Space Station in April. It went into orbit from there on 17 June. Since then, the CQT researchers have been in daily contact with the satellite and on 2 July, they switched on the satellite’s scientific instrument to begin making entangled light. The satellite with its two passengers will be in orbit for approximately one year, allowing the research team to gather data on the quantum device’s performance.

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CQT researchers with the completed satellite before it was launched

The Golden Record 2.0 was inspired by two Voyager spacecraft launched by NASA in the 1970s carrying golden records engraved with messages about Earth and humanity. The innovative theatre project was led by students from NUS Stage, together with Director Ms Edith Podesta and writer Ms Corrie Tan. It centred on the prompt “Given the opportunity to select sounds, images and greetings that portray life on earth, what message would Singaporeans choose to communicate to the universe?”

To develop the script of the play, some 30 people in Singapore of varying ages and backgrounds were interviewed, including students, a poet, a housewife, a domestic worker and professors of Law, English Language, and Biochemistry. Assoc Prof Ling, who is also a faculty in NUS Physics, was one of those interviewed.

In the play, he talks about the motivation for developing space missions. “You can talk about the spin-offs, about the technology that comes with it, but it’s really curiosity-driven. I’m hoping that, as a scientist in NUS, I am part of the slow cultural change where people actually think of these fundamental questions with a bit more of a sense of wonder,” said Assoc Prof Ling.

A new iteration of the play, named The Golden Record 3.0, will be staged on 18 October as one of the NUS events marking Singapore’s bicentennial year.