Photographer Max Alexander waited five days for the perfect conditions to capture the feature photograph of his exhibit, “Our Fragile Space: Protecting the Near-Space Environment.” Taken in Wales, UK, the pre-dawn photograph depicts an ancient burial chamber under a starry sky streaked with satellites.
“This was a Neolithic 5,000-year-old stone formation, four miles from the quarry where they got the bluestones for Stonehenge,” Alexander said. “A satellite that had just launched serendipitously flew right over the capstone, and we could see trails left by the International Space Station and myriad other satellites.
“It wasn’t lost on me —the juxtaposition of this 5,000-year-old monument and this 21st century experience.”
The image is among 88 included in Alexander’s exhibition, which debuted Oct. 6 at Lloyd’s of London. The photographs aim to show the changes happening in Earth’s near-space environment and highlight measures being taken to protect it, including the emerging field of space sustainability regulation.
Viasat, which is dedicated to space sustainability, is a sponsor of Alexander’s show. Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg has emerged as a leading voice on the issue.
Alexander has studied astrophysics and worked closely with space agencies concerned about sustainability.
My key message in this exhibit is that near space is part of the Earth’s environment and it needs protecting.
“My key message in this exhibit is that near space is part of the Earth’s environment and it needs protecting,” he said. “I wouldn’t call myself a space environmentalist, but I’m endeavoring to show people what’s going on from a human perspective and for others to roll with that.”
Alexander specializes in science communication through visual storytelling, and his career to date has led him on a fascinating life journey.
As a child, he was moved by the 1969 television coverage of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. In 2011, he flew in an airplane with Armstrong and photographed him during the first Starmus Festival, a multi-day international festival of science, music and art.
In 2009, Alexander met and photographed Queen lead guitarist Brian May, who holds a PhD in astrophysics. The photographer took May’s portrait for Alexander’s “Explorers of the Universe” series, part of the United Nation’s (UN) 2009 International Year of Astronomy, and has known him ever since.
In 2014, inspired by a film about an asteroid hitting London, Alexander proposed the idea of Asteroid Day to raise awareness of the threat to Earth from asteroids. With the help of May and several others, that idea became reality. And in 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring each June 30 International Asteroid Day.
Alexander works for a large number of international organizations including the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory. His photography subjects have included Nobel Prize winners, astronauts and world leaders, including Stephen Hawking and Nelson Mandela.
‘Most challenging project’
Despite that long list of accomplishments, Alexander said “Our Fragile Earth” has been uniquely demanding.
“Doing this project is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done; I put every ounce I’ve got into it,” said Alexander. “It started being about space debris. But it became evident quickly that I needed to tell the wider story.
“Space is part of our everyday lives and space technology has brought us so many benefits. But with the exponential growth in the use of space comes the emerging sustainability issues.”
It took Alexander a year to capture the images for “Our Fragile Space”, photographing from the top of volcanos in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, cleanrooms across Europe, military facilities, rocket launches on both coasts of the United States within days of each other, and a farm in England.
“It was an epic journey, and getting many of these photographs required a lot of discussion and persuasion,” Alexander said.
During that year, his passion for the subject grew deeper.
“To me, when I look at the pictures I took of these satellite trails, it looks like the sky’s been scratched,” he said. “And it’s only just beginning. The loss of the night sky is accelerating and is a real concern.”
It’s not the first time Alexander has drawn attention to a serious and deeply personal issue. In 2015, he launched the exhibition “Hidden” highlighting England’s young caregivers, inspired by his own childhood experiences caring for his mentally ill mother. The attention that exhibition brought to the issue affected policy for the UK’s National Health Service, and he believes “Our Fragile Earth” will have a similar affect on space sustainability.
In the end, Alexander said the exhibition is designed to send a message of hope.
“Human activity over hundreds of years has led to global changes on the land, in the oceans, with plastic in particular, in the atmosphere, leading to climate change – and now in space with space debris,” he said. “We are only 65 years into the Space Age, so we have an opportunity to not repeat the same behavior.
“Space-driven innovation has always shown the way including down here on Earth. The space sector, stretching all the way to regulation, is full of inspiring, talented, creative and motivated people. They have led us to a better way of life on Earth - and I believe will lead us to a better, more sustainable path in space.”