A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched on December 3 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Santa Barbara, California, its payload includes 64 small satellites from 34 organizations and 17 countries, each having paid launch broker Spaceflight Industries a hefty fee to be blasted 350 miles up and released into low earth orbit.
Most of these satellites are destined to carry out some utilitarian purpose, be it communications, observation, or science. But there is one small satellite among them that aims to do nothing more than entice people around the world to enact a primal, atavistic urge: to look up at the night sky and wonder what’s out there.
It’s April, and that satellite’s creator, the artist Trevor Paglen, is sitting in the lobby of a Hampton Inn in West Covina, California, 20 miles east of downtown LA, explaining the rationale behind the project he’s calling the Orbital Reflector.
“The point for me really was to create a kind of catalyst for looking at the sky and thinking about everything from planets to satellites to space junk to public space and asking, ‘What does it mean to be on this planet?’” says Paglen, who has come to California to witness some crucial prelaunch tests on his creation. “It’s a timeless question in some ways, but the content of the question is always changing.”
Paglen has described the project, which was undertaken in partnership with the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, as “the first satellite to exist solely as an artistic gesture.” As gestures go, it’s not cheap—its budget of $1.5 million was funded by the museum, private donors, and a Kickstarter campaign—but it’s certainly true to its name.
Once in orbit, it will deploy a 100-foot-long, 5-foot-wide balloon made of high-density polyethylene coated with titanium dioxide powder that will reflect light back to earth, making it as visible to the naked eye as a star in the Big Dipper, a work of public art streaking across the night, visible to anyone who looks up into a clear sky at the right time, and trackable via the project’s website and a partnership with the Starwalk 2 app.
“The goal has been to build this out like it’s the exact opposite of every other satellite,” says Paglen, who has a long history of art projects that chart the dark world of government surveillance. Where other satellites might spy or photograph or measure, his will be defiantly, whimsically useless. It will remain in the sky for at least two months and then will burn up in the atmosphere on re-entry. “It’s a way to do an artwork that exists at and thinks about the scale of the planet.”