A sports car and a glitter ball are now in space – what does that say about us as humans?


Alice Gorman, Flinders University

Two controversial objects have recently been launched in space, and their messages couldn’t be more different.

One is Elon Musk’s red sports car, a symbol of elite wealth and masculinity, hurtling towards Mars.

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The other is a glittering geodesic sphere in Earth orbit, designed to give humans a shared experience and a sense of our place in the universe: the Humanity Star.

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A red car for a red planet

On February 6 2018, Musk’s private space company SpaceX launched the much-vaunted Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Centre – from the same launch pad as Apollo 11 in 1969.

It’s a test launch carrying a dummy payload: Musk’s own personal midnight cherry Roadster, a sports car made by his Tesla company. The driver, dubbed Starman, is a mannequin in a SpaceX spacesuit.




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For the ultimate road trip soundtrack, the car is playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

The car will enter an elliptical solar orbit, its furthest point from the Sun around the distance of Mars.

Musk thinks of it as future space archaeology.

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Reactions include waxing lyrical about the speed the car will reach, lamenting the lost opportunity for a scientific experiment, and celebrating it as an inspirational act of whimsy.

Fear of flying

The Tesla Roadster might be an expendable dummy payload, but it’s primary purpose is symbolic communication. There’s a lot going on here.

There’s an element of performing excessive wealth by wasting it. Giving up such an expensive car (a new model costs US$200,000) could be seen as a sacrifice for space, but it’s also like burning $100 notes to show how how little they mean.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Victor Turner argued that symbols can encompass two contradictory meanings at the same time. Thus, the sports car in orbit symbolises both life and death. Through the body of the car, Musk is immortalised in the vacuum of space. The car is also an armour against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality.

The spacesuit is also about death. It’s the essence of the uncanny: the human simulacrum, something familiar that causes uneasiness, or even a sense of horror. The Starman was never alive, but now he’s haunting space.

In a similar vein, the red sports car symbolises masculinity – power, wealth and speed – but also how fragile masculinity is. Stereotypically, the red sports car is the accessory of choice in the male mid-life crisis, which men use to rebel against perceived domestication.

A related cultural meme holds that owning a sports car is over-compensation. Have we just sent the equivalent of a dick pic into space?

Space graffiti

The brainchild of Peter Beck (founder of the New Zealand-based Rocket Lab), the Humanity Star was launched on 21 January 2018, but kept a secret until after it had successfully reached orbit.

In contrast to the lean and slightly aggressive lines of the sports car, the Humanity Star is a geodesic sphere of silver triangular panels. It’s a beach ball, a moon, a BB8, a space age sculpture. Its round shape is friendly and reassuring.

Similar satellites – with reflective surfaces designed for bouncing lasers – are orbiting Earth right now. But this satellite doesn’t have a scientific purpose. It’s only function is to be seen from Earth as its bright faces tumble to catch the light.

Astronomers weren’t happy, saying that it would confuse astronomical observations. It was even called “space graffiti”, implying that its visual qualities marred the “natural” night sky. Some lambasted Rocket Lab for contributing to the orbital debris problem. Instead of inspiration, they saw pollution.

Through the looking glass

Beck wants people to engage with the Humanity Star. In his words,

My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.

Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.




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This is the “Overview Effect” in reverse. We can’t all go to space and see the whole blue marble of the Earth from outside, inspiring a new consciousness of how much we are all together in the same boat. Beck has tried to create a similar feeling of a united Earth by looking outwards instead.

In nine months or so, the Humanity Star will tumble back into the atmosphere to be consumed. It will leave no trace of its passage through orbit.

The medium is the message

Ultimately, these orbiting objects are messages about human relationships with space. Both objects were launched by private corporations, inviting Earthbound people to share the journey. However, one reinforces existing inequalities, while the other promotes a hopeful vision of unity.

Beck and Musk’s intentions are irrelevant to how the symbols are interpreted by diverse audiences. Symbols can be multivalent, contradictory, and fluid – their meanings can change over time, and in different social contexts.

The ConversationEvery object humans have launched into the solar system is a statement: each tells the story of our attitudes to space at a particular point in time.

Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: what can Tesla’s giant South Australian battery achieve?


Ariel Liebman, Monash University and Kaveh Rajab Khalilpour, Monash University

Last Friday, world-famous entrepreneur Elon Musk jetted into Adelaide to kick off Australia’s long-delayed battery revolution.

The Tesla founder joined South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill and the international chief executive of French windfarm developer Neoen, Romain Desrousseaux, to announce what will be the world’s largest battery installation.

The battery tender won by Tesla was a key measure enacted by the South Australian government in response to the statewide blackout in September 2016, together with the construction of a 250 megawatt gas-fired power station.

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The project will incorporate a 100MW peak output battery with 129 megawatt hours of storage alongside Neoen’s Hornsdale windfarm, near Jamestown. When fully charged, we estimate that this will be enough to power 8,000 homes for one full day, or more than 20,000 houses for a few hours at grid failure, but this is not the complete picture.

The battery will support grid stability, rather than simply power homes on its own. It’s the first step towards a future in which renewable energy and storage work together.

How Tesla’s Powerpacks work

Tesla’s Powerpacks are lithium-ion batteries, similar to a laptop or a mobile phone battery.

In a Tesla Powerpack, the base unit is the size of a large thick tray. Around sixteen of these are inserted into a fridge-sized cabinet to make a single Tesla “Powerpack”.

With 210 kilowatt-hour per Tesla Powerpack, the full South Australian installation is estimated to be made up of several hundred units.

To connect the battery to South Australia’s grid, its DC power needs to be converted to AC. This is done using similar inverter technology to that used in rooftop solar panels to connect them to the grid.

A control system will also be needed to dictate the battery’s charging and discharging. This is both for the longevity of battery as well to maximise its economic benefit.

For example, the deeper the regular discharge, the shorter the lifetime of the battery, which has a warranty period of 15 years. To maximise economic benefits, the battery should be charged during low wholesale market price periods and discharged when the price is high, but these times are not easy to predict.

More research is needed into better battery scheduling algorithms that can predict the best charging and discharging times. This work, which we are undertaking at Monash Energy Materials and Systems Institute (MEMSI), is one way to deal with unreliable price forecasts, grid demand and renewable generation uncertainty.

The battery and the windfarm

Tesla’s battery will be built next to the Hornsdale wind farm and will most likely be connected directly to South Australia’s AC transmission grid in parallel to the wind farm.

Its charging and discharging operation will be based on grid stabilisation requirements.

This can happen in several ways. During times with high wind output but low demand, the surplus energy can be stored in the battery instead of overloading the grid or going to waste.

Conversely, at peak demand times with low wind output or a generator failure, stored energy could be dispatched into the grid to meet demand and prevent problems with voltage or frequency. Likewise, when the wind doesn’t blow, the battery could be charged from the grid.

The battery and the grid – will it save us?

In combination with South Australia’s proposed gas station, the battery can help provide stability during extreme events such as a large generator failure or during more common occurrences, such as days with low wind output.

At this scale, it is unlikely to have a large impact on the average consumer power price in South Australia. But it can help reduce the incidence of very high prices during tight supply-demand periods, if managed optimally.

For instance, if a very hot day is forecast during summer, the battery can be fully charged in advance, and then discharged to the grid during that hot afternoon when air conditioning use is high, helping to meet demand and keep wholesale prices stable.

More importantly, Tesla’s battery is likely to be the first of many such storage installations. As more renewables enter the grid, more storage will be needed – otherwise the surplus energy will have to be curtailed to avoid network overloading.

Another storage technology to watch is off-river pumped hydro energy storage (PHES), which we are modelling at the Australia-Indonesia Energy Cluster.

The ConversationThe South Australian Tesla-Neoen announcement is just the beginning. It is the first step of a significant journey towards meeting the Australian Climate Change Authority’s recommendation of zero emissions by at least 2050.

Ariel Liebman, Deputy Director, Monash Energy Materials and Systems Instutute, and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University and Kaveh Rajab Khalilpour, Senior Research Fellow, Caulfield School of Information Technology, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.