The Anthropology of Space Weather

An anthropological look at a strange kind of weather that comes from outer space…

A.R.E. Taylor

Amidst recent calls to ‘de-terrestrialise’ anthropological thought (Howe 2015; Olson and Messeri 2015), I would like to introduce a very different kind of weather into the purview of anthropological analysis: ‘space weather’.

Unlike terrestrial weather, space weather cannot be seen or otherwise sensed by human beings. Nor does it take place in the troposphere, where most terrestrial weather systems develop. Space weather is an umbrella term that is used to describe electromagnetic disturbances that occur in the near-Earth space environment. It arises when electrically-charged particles ejected from the Sun interact with the Earth’s magnetic field (Fig. 1). This electromagnetic interactivity can trigger global fluctuations in the planet’s magnetic field. The northern lights (aurora borealis) and southern lights (aurora australis) are understood to be visible manifestations of this electromagnetic interactivity.

Figure 1 NASA Diagram of Stellar Magnetic Fields. Credit: NASA

Along with auroral displays, these energetic interactions can also generate powerful electrical currents in the upper atmosphere. These currents can induce destructive high-voltage surges in the electronics of space-born infrastructure like satellites and can flow into the earth, causing damage to conducting material such as pipelines, power grids, communications systems and other critical infrastructure (Fig. 2). The last decade has seen space weather rapidly move onto national security agendas around the world as a key threat to the infrastructure systems that underpin industrialised society. According to the UK Government’s 2015 National Risk Register, a severe space weather event could cause ‘disruption to the ground digital components found in all modern technology’ (UK Cabinet Office 2015: 26).

Figure 2 The space-weathered world: NASA illustration showing technological infrastructure affected by space weather. Credit: NASA

In the popular press, space weather events are often represented as entailing the prolonged loss of digital technologies and electrical infrastructure on a continental or planetary scale, lasting for months or even years. The imagined technological and societal disruption is typically configured temporally as a violent ‘return’ to an earlier state of pre-digital being, with news headlines frequently proclaiming that a severe space weather event would ‘send us back to the Stone Age’ (Anthony 2014) — or some other decidedly pre-digital point in time. Public and political discourse on the space weather threat connects long-standing narratives of technological progress and mastery with contemporary concerns about humanity’s perceived dependency on interdependent and interconnected digital systems.

The catastrophic imaginary that guides many space weather preparedness efforts today is based upon a space weather event that occurred between the 28–30 August and the 1–2 September, 1859. Auroral displays were witnessed in the tropics, with sightings at latitudes as far south as Hawaii, Colombia and Cuba (Fig. 3). The astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792–1871) noted that ‘These auroras were accompanied with unusually great electromagnetic disturbances in every part of the world’ (cited in Youmans 1872: 158). Telegraphic communications were severely disrupted as electrical currents swept through the wires, making it difficult if not impossible for operators to send messages (see Prescott 1860). Power surges overloaded currents and sent out sparks, causing fires in telegraph stations and giving operators electric shocks (Clauer and Siscoe 2006). This event came to be known as The Carrington Event. It was named after the English astronomer Richard C. Carrington (1826–1875), who happened to witness one of the solar flares erupt that space weather scientists today recognise as the cause of the auroral display and telegraphic standstill. Carrington’s observations suggested a connection might exist between terrestrial electromagnetic disturbances and solar activity, spurning on scientific investigations into solar-terrestrial relations and eventually leading to the emergence of space weather as a scientific field.

Figure 3 Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis.” Some speculate that Church took his inspiration from the Great Auroral Storm of 1859. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is a long-standing anthropological interest in the diverse and dynamic relationships that human social groups have formed with the Sun, from early ethnographic studies of the rituals, mythologies and magic practices organised around the rising and setting of the Sun (e.g. Malinowski 2002 [1922]: 99; Evans-Pritchard 1976) to more recent studies of the role that solar power plays in energy development projects (e.g. Boyer 2011; Cross 2013). The social practices and cultural implications surrounding the production and imagination of space weather preparedness provides a valuable opportunity to explore a very different kind of relationship that humanity is constructing with the Sun.

While the metaphor of ‘weather’ may serve to familiarise this strange, extra-terrestrial electromagnetism, as this non-Earthly weather is brought into political organisation, it is defamiliarising and reshaping understandings of the planet Earth’s place in the solar system and of humanity’s relationship to planetary-spanning digital systems.

As such, an anthropological analysis of space weather provides a valuable window onto newly emerging imaginations and perceptions of what it means to live on an increasingly technologised planet only eight light-minutes away from the Sun.

This article originally appeared on Weather Matters, an online hub for anthropologists working on issues related to weather and climate change.


Anthony, Sebastian. 2014. The Solar Storm of 2012 that Almost Sent us Back to a Post-Apocalyptic Stone Age. 24 July.

Boyer, Dominic. 2011. Energopolitics and the Anthropology of Energy. Anthropology News, pp. 5–6.

Clauer, C. Robert and George Siscoe, eds. 2006. The Great Historical Geomagnetic Storm of 1859: A Modern Look. Advances in Space Research. Volume 38, Issue 2, pp. 117–118.

Cross, Jamie. 2013. The 100th Object: Solar Lighting Technology and Humanitarian Goods. Journal of Material Culture. Volume 18, №4, pp. 367–387.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1976. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Howe, Cymene. 2015. Life Above Earth: An Introduction. Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 30, №2, pp. 203–209.

Malinowski, Bronisław. 2002 [1922]. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Quinea. London: Routledge.

Olson, Valerie and Lisa Messeri. 2015. Beyond the Anthropocene: Un-Earthing an Epoch. Environment and Society: Advances in Research. Vol. 6, pp. 28–47.

Prescott, George B. 1860. History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph. Boston, Massachusetts and London: Ticknor and Fields, Trübner. University of Cambridge Library, Rare Books Collection, Classmark: IV.30.9.

UK Cabinet Office. 2015. National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies. Published March 2015.

Youmans, Edward Livingstone. 1872. The Spots on the Sun. Popular Science Monthly. Vol. 1, June.

Based with the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, A.R.E. Taylor works at the intersection of digital anthropology, critical data studies, media archaeology and science and technology studies. He co-runs the Social Studies of Outer Space Network and is an editorial assistant for the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. He is also a co-founder of the Black Sky Resilience Group, a network of researchers, policy makers and industry leaders exploring societal and infrastructure resilience in relation to global catastrophic risks. His research interests include: technology and modernity, futures, outer space, techno-apocalyptic narratives, data preservation and pre-digital nostalgia.

Is there a Place in Space for Art?

by Nina Witjes & Michael Clormann

(originally published on
Orbital Reflector, co-produced and presented by Trevor Paglen and the Nevada Museum of Art, 2017 (© Trevor Paglen,

The image of “Starman”, the astronaut-dummy floating in his cherry red Tesla car through outer space has been all over the media earlier this year. The image was taken from a camera that sits on the car’s dashboard, capturing the dummy, the Earth and a sign on that reads „Don´t Panic”. Both the car and the dummy are a powerful symbol of commercial claim towards space in the age of “New Space”. New Space, a term widely adopted within the aerospace industry, signifies fundamental changes in how we use and relate to outer space: Not only does its goal of commercializing outer space pose a challenging technological and regulatory endeavor, it also introduces new structures, practices and organizational forms of exploration, exploitation, and excitement – in short, a new techno-politics of orbits and outer space. When Starman was put into orbit by SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket, the impact on the global space community was profound; start-ups, media and government actors alike indulged in an enthusiastic discourse on the promises of commercial space exploration; for space tourism science, business, and to, eventually, becoming multi-planetary.

Recently, art has claimed a place in space, too. Trevor Paglen, an artist/activist/researcher known for his work on surveillance and secret intelligence sites, is preparing and announcing to launch a small satellite able to transform into a highly reflective sculpture once it reaches low earth orbit. As soon as crowdfunding allows, the “art satellite” is supposed to launch. The project, in collaboration with the Museum of Nevada, states that „[a]s the twenty-first century unfolds and gives rise to unsettled global tensions, Orbital Reflector encourages all of us to look up at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder, to consider our place in the universe, and to reimagine how we live together on this planet.“

While it is always a good idea to wonder about humanity and the great and not so great things we did on and with planet Earth, this project – literally – reflects the wrong way. This is, it misses the opportunity to draw attention to many serious issues. In particular that of waste in space. In an interview with PBS , the artist stated that “when I look at infrastructures, and I look at the kind of political stuff that’s built into our environments, I try to imagine, what would the opposite of that be? Could we imagine if space was for art? What would that be? And then I’m kind of ridiculous enough where like, OK, let’s get busy, let’s do that.“

This partly mirrors the attitude of New Space actors like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others, that is, if we can imagine it, let´s do it – and think about the consequences later, if at all (remember: A car in space can be considered media-effective space junk). At the same time, it reveals the ambivalence with which the space sector approaches its legacy: The remnants of decades of spaceflight activities have left an ever-growing and, by now, a dangerously dense pile of rocket components and defunct satellites in earth’s orbits. This so-called “space debris”, threatening space infrastructures around it, is what many in the aerospace sector now call Paglen’s art project, too.

Not unlike the framing of climate change and marine debris as a socio-material risk of global impact, the worst-case scenario concerning space debris predicts a likely future, where the planet’s orbits are becoming permanently impenetrable to astronomical observation as well as any form of space travel leaving or revolving the planet. That is if no countermeasures are taken. Imagined as a cascading phenomenon of colliding, shattering and thus self-multiplying debris fragments, this scenario evokes immediacy through the identification of a point of no return, again, not unlike the one associated with climate change.

From an STS perspective, we agree with Paglen, that one of the main reasons why space policymakers are still slow to respond to the growing threat of space debris is that it has been largely invisible, as it is “easy to forget these all-but-invisible activities“ taking place in outer space — out of sight, out of mind. However, it is hard to imagine that the orbital reflector will change the way we think about space as a place by „making visible the invisible“, neither in terms of responsibility nor sustainability. Here´s why:

At the time when Paglen began working on the project, concrete fears of space debris had surfaced in public perception through two major and highly visible events in outer space: In 2007, China deliberately destroyed its “Fengyun-1C”, satellite in low orbit, an event heavily criticized as having unnecessarily released large amounts of small fragments of space debris. Two years later, we witnessed the first ever accidental collision of two communication satellites, Cosmo 2251 and Iridium 33, causing over 140.000 pieces of space debris in total. This year, the Chinese space lab Tiangong-1 became a matter of international security concern: From the point when the space station was announced obsolete and defunct by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the school-bus-size station´s uncontrolled descent appeared as a matter of nightmares for many as its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere could only be vaguely predicted. The orbital reflector, with its reflective artwork deployed, will be double the size of it.

Instead of making the invisible visible, the Orbital Reflector (as well as any other shiny satellites, floating cars or just the usual clutter in outer space) might be part of the problem: Being in the way of science to gain a clear view of the universe as they limit a telescope’s ability to accurately envision the cosmos and measure its stars.

Jonathan McDowell, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, recently told Gizmodo that launching bright satellites with no other function than art, fun or prestige into orbit, is „the space equivalent of someone putting a neon advertising billboard right outside your bedroom window”. Paglen recently responded to the criticisms, asking why it would be any more of a problem for stargazers than any of the other hundreds (soon to be thousands) of satellites due to launch every year? Well, after all, it is this kind of thinking about the responsibility that has led to severe environmental issues. Regarding the role of art in space and the fact that the Orbital Reflector will revolve around the Earth without any specific scientific or military goal, Paglen asks his critics why “we (are) offended by a sculpture in space, but we’re not offending (sic!) by nuclear missile targeting devices or mass surveillance devices, or satellites with nuclear engines that have a potential to fall to earth and scatter radioactive waste all over the place?” But is this really the case? After all, it has long concerned social sciences how to make infrastructures visible and how to deal with the sociotechnical vulnerabilities of any techno-society. In particular, researchers in science and technology studies and critical security studies have shown an emerging interest in questions of surveillance from and the increasing militarization of outer space as well as the risks these and their byproducts pose for the sustainability of earthly and space infrastructures. Discarding the Orbital Reflector as a bright idea should not be understood as a rejection of art concerned with and located in space, but of the claim that if the military can launch satellites, art should, too.

Simultaneously, critical debates about the role of art in space are not necessarily in favor of or naive about governmental space technologies. There are civil society projects, too, that use satellite images for monitoring human rights violations and war atrocities – often operating on a shoe-string budget. Many of them would probably be happy to see the 1.3 million dollars estimated for the construction and launch of Paglen´s activist art project to impact their activities. Instead, its contribution will be to shed light on places that are currently in the dark – not metaphorically speaking in terms of human rights but just because it´s nighttime.

Space has become a place where sustainability is increasingly negotiated as an issue of security, as billions of people around the world rely on space systems to facilitate their daily life, from navigation to environmental services, from science to communication, crisis response and banking, from intelligence to education. Space debris poses the question of how we want to live with our material leftovers revolving “above” of us. Another bright and shiny useless satellite in orbit does not provide a good answer.

Nina Witjes is a university assistant (post doc) at the Institute for Science and Technology Studies at Vienna University. Her work is situated at the intersection of STS and International Relations with a special focus on space programs and security.

Michael Clormann is a doctoral candidate / research associate at the Friedrich Schiedel Endowed Chair of Sociology of Science and the Munich Center for Technology in Society at the Technical University of Munich.