The Svalbard archipelago is so far north that residents look south to see the Northern Lights. In this remote place, there’s a giant satellite station–a series of domes that receive data sent by the satellites orbiting Earth along the poles.
A new photo series by the photographer Reuben Wu depicts the stunning landscape of the Svalbard Satellite Station. The project focuses on the launch of a new satellite called the Joint Polar Satellite System 1 (JPSS-1), which launched into space in November and will monitor the planet’s climate.
In March, Wu spent several days wandering around the icy, frozen tundra upon which the satellite station stands watch. The place had just emerged from the total darkness of winter, and Wu’s photos capture the sunrise’s stunning, ethereal light. Because the sun never gets higher than just above the horizon before dipping back down again at this time of year, the images have a pink softness to them, a quality that makes his scientific subject almost seem otherworldly.
The main character in Wu’s series is undoubtedly the station itself: its white globular structures look like alien settlements. One image shows a station on top of a hill, surrounded by a halo of light with a dramatic, conical shadow; in another, the domes loom large as the Northern Lights dance in the sky. Photos of the domes’ interiors are starkly white and scientific–a reminder of their true purpose. Other images focus on the infrastructure required to keep the station going: a frozen road, the tiny houses hugging the mountainside, the sparkling lights of the Svalbard town of Longyearbyen. It’s a place where the ground is permanently frozen–and no one is allowed to die because frozen bodies don’t decompose, so no one can be buried there. “I’m very interested in photographing landscapes with a kind of human story,” Wu says.
For Wu, the place has a tinge of nostalgia–he did his first photo project as an independent photographer in Svalbard in 2011. This time, his trip was paid for by Raytheon, the company that built one of the cameras on the JPSS-1–which means the photos aren’t a critical look at the station and its practices, but should be taken as more of an artistic interpretation of Svalbard. While he did some photos for the corporation, the images in the photo series are his personal expression of the place. The series also includes a photo taken of the interior of the satellite at a lab in California as well as the launch of the rocket into the atmosphere.
The satellite will orbit Earth along its poles, effectively scanning the planet as it rotates and informing scientists’ understanding of climate change. “It’s important now more than ever to figure out what’s about to happen weather-wise and be able to monitor things like melting ice,” Wu says. “It’s pretty important to have these satellites up there before any further cuts are made to NASA spending.”