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By Matt Williams
One of the most cited reasons and benefits of space exploration is the way it brings people together. Think of iconic moments, like the Moon Landing or the launch of Yuri Gagarin (the first man to go into space), and the impact they had on their respective generations. Looking to the future, there are many who hope to use space exploration to bring people from all walks of life and nationalities together again.
One such person is Trevor Paglen – an American artist, geographer, and author – who plans to launch a reflective, nonfunctional satellite into low Earth orbit (LEO) this year. This initiative, known as the Orbital Reflector (which is scheduled to launch sometime this fall), is designed to encourage humanity to look up at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder and purpose, and contemplate how we can all live together here on Earth.
To make this project a reality, Paglen teamed up with the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, the aerospace company Global Western and space launch-provider Spaceflight Industries. Whereas the former is responsible for manufacturing the CubeSat, Spaceflight Industries – a Seattle-based launch service provider – has arranged to launch the entire project aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sometime later this Fall.
The proposal entails sending a 30.5 meter (100 foot) diamond-shaped balloon composed of a lightweight, mylar-like material into space. This will be housed inside a CubeSat and launched to LEO, at a distance of about 575 km (350 mi) from the surface. Once there, the CubeSat will open to release the balloon, which will then self-inflate.
The diamond structure will reflect sunlight, making it bright enough to be seen with the naked eye (as bright as the Big Dipper) for a several weeks. At that point, the Orbital Reflector will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. So far, Paglen and his partners have raised about 60% of the project’s overall budget of $1.3 million. To raise the final $70,000 they need, he has launched a crowdfunding campaign with Kickstarter.
Ultimately, Paglen hopes that his work of art will draw attention to space and all the activities taking place up there. This includes the satellites that are essential to navigation, telecommunications, transportation, and defense. In addition, there is also the essential monitoring and cutting-edge research being performed by Earth observation satellites, CubeSats, and astronauts aboard the ISS.
While these activities are very important to our society – and in many cases, are part of our daily existence – they remain invisible to us. In this sense, the reflector will make the invisible visible and inspire people to think about humanity’s future in space. It is hoped that it will also focus attention on what we are doing here on Earth, at a time when geopolitical conflicts, economic woes, climate change and human rights abuses are all rampant.
When Paglen approached the Nevada Museum of Art in 2015 with his idea to launch the world’s first satellite (that would exist purely as an artistic gesture), they saw it as a means to change how people view our activities in space and our place in the Universe. As it says on Paglen’s Kickstarter page:
“Art gives us a reason — gives us permission — to look at something deeply. An artwork that pushes the boundaries of what we traditionally think of as “art” challenges the way we engage with the world. 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 re-imagine how we live together on this planet. It prompts us to ask the big questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What are we doing to the shared world in which we live?”
This project is also in keeping with Paglen’s artistic method, which is inspired by the landscape tradition. Whereas traditional landscape artist’s and photographers focused on natural settings, Paglen’s work draws attention to infrastructure and the influence it has on us – particularly the infrastructure of mass surveillance and data collection.
Earlier this year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened a mid-career retrospective exhibition for Paglen, titled Sites Unseen. This exhibition focused on his early photographic work, his recent sculptural work, and his new work with artificial intelligence. As the name suggests, the intent was to show how Paglen draws attention to things we are not meant to see, which he considers symptomatic to the age we live in.
The Orbital Reflector project was officially announced by the Nevada Museum of Art at its 2017 Art + Environment Conference, where Paglen was a keynote presenter. An early prototype for Orbital Reflector also hangs in the Nevada Museum of Art today, located in the Donald W. Reynolds Grand Hall. As the Museum said in the conference program about the project’s purpose:
“In partnership with aerospace engineers and the Nevada Museum of Art, Trevor Paglen will launch Orbital Reflector into low-earth orbit as the world’s first nonutilitarian satellite. This ephemeral artwork will have a life span of several weeks. Paglen aims to make an artistic and aesthetic statement while encouraging dialogue related to larger issues surrounding the interdisciplinary fields of science, engineering, politics, and space.”
This project calls to the mind the Humanity Star, an artificial satellite launched into space earlier this year by the New Zealand-based aerospace company Rocket Lab. At the behest of the company’s founder (Peter Beck), this reflective geodesic sphere was placed in LEO to inspire the world about the future of space exploration and foster a sense of unity between people and nations.
It is also not dissimilar from Elon Musk’s recently-announced plan to send a group of artists to space as part of the BFR’s first lunar mission. This endeavor, which has come to be named #dearMoon, will see Japanese fashion innovator and art curator Yusaku Maezawa and eight other artists making a circumlunar trip and creating art inspired by the journey.
In short, the Orbital Reflector is the latest in a series of recent attempts to draw attention to the future of space exploration and its importance for humanity. It also showcases how the modern space age is increasingly becoming part of the public domain, with commercial launchers and private citizens participating like never before.
The Kickstarter campaign officially closed on Oct. 8th, 2018, having raised a total of $76,053 for their project. With their budget secure, we may be seeing the launch of this entirely non-commercial, non-military, strictly-artistic satellite very soon!
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