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A Japanese Artist Launches Plants Into Space

A Japanese Artist Launches Plants Into Space.

“Flowers aren’t just beautiful to show on tables,” said Azuma Makoto, a 38-year-old artist based in Tokyo. His latest installation piece, if you could call it that, takes this statement to the extreme. Two botanical objects — “Shiki 1,” a Japanese white pine bonsai suspended from a metal frame, and an untitled arrangement of orchids, hydrangeas, lilies and irises, among other blossoms — were launched into the stratosphere on Tuesday in Black Rock Desert outside Gerlach, Nevada, a site made famous for its hosting of the annual Burning Man festival. ”I wanted to see the movement and beauty of plants and flowers suspended in space,” Makoto explained that morning.

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“The best thing about this project is that space is so foreign to most of us,” says Powell, “so seeing a familiar object like a bouquet of flowers flying above Earth domesticates space, and the idea of traveling into it.”

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He started with an aerial plant tied to a six-rod axis and studiously added peace lilies, poppy seed pods, dahlias, hydrangeas, orchids, bromeliads and a meaty burgundy heliconia. “I am using brightly colored flowers from around the world so that they contrast against the darkness of space,” he said. The scent of the flowers was stronger and more concentrated in the dry desert breeze than in their humid, natural environments, and the launch site was redolent with their perfume. Makoto worked quietly, until the metal rods were covered completely with plants. Then he directed his attention to his bonsai. For this particular project, Makoto chose a 50-year-old pine from his collection of more than 100 specimens, and flew it over from Tokyo in a special box. While readying it for space, he kept it moist and removed a few brown needles with a tweezer.

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Using Styrofoam and a very light metal frame, Powell and his volunteers had created two devices to attach the bonsai and the flowers, which would launch separately. JP’s volunteers and Makoto’s team worked to calibrate still cameras, donated by Fuji Film for this project, and six Go Pro video cameras tied in a ball that would record the trip into the stratosphere and back in 360 degrees. There were two different tracking systems on each device, one a Spot GPS tracker that would help locate the vessel once it fell down back to Earth, and the other that recorded altitude and distance traveled from the launch site. A radio transmitted the data to a computer array in a van. While the crew waited, Makoto took a red carnation, drilled a hole in a crack of the arid, sandy soil and planted it there. It was his nod to the huge red sun that had started to come up.

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Away 101 went to 91,800 feet, traveling up for 100 minutes until the helium balloon burst. It fell for 40 minutes; two parachutes in baskets opened automatically when there was enough air in the atmosphere to soften impact. Away 100, which held the arrangement, made it up to 87,000 feet. Both devices were retrieved about five miles from the launch site. The bonsai and flowers, though, were never found.