Satellite sculpture to fly in space

The artist Trevor Paglen wants to transform space into an open-air museum for earthlings. His satellite Orbital Reflector doesn’t collect weather data and doesn’t help with navigation – but it raises the question of what belongs in space and what doesn’t. Some scientists are angry and warn against unnecessary space debris.

According to UN figures, more than 1800 satellites are currently orbiting the Earth, and in 2017 alone a good 550 new objects were registered. They collect weather data, help navigate or spy on enemy targets. They control shipping traffic or coordinate time in power grids, banks and computer networks. Different “Orbital Reflector”: The satellite is to be launched into its orbit around the planet in mid-November and can do nothing but mirror and shimmer. Or is it? The orbital sculpture by the American artist Trevor Paglen is intended to inspire people to think.

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The satellite is meant as a “purely artistic gesture” and “does not serve any military, commercial or scientific purposes,” according to a video on the project. “It is in many ways the opposite of any satellite that has ever been placed in orbit.

Defence Policy Space Arms Race

The US military wants to create a “Space Force”. The desire for a space army shows that America feels increasingly vulnerable even in space.

Exactly this purposelessness makes some astronomers groan. When in January a mirror ball called “Humanity Star” was put into space – also as an object of art – some feared for the accuracy of their measurements. “It’s the space equivalent of a neon-colored billboard right in front of your bedroom,” said astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), which is run by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution. The online magazine “Gizmodo” demanded: “Hey artist, stop putting shiny shit into space.”

But Paglen’s “shiny shit” could at least enchant some space enthusiasts. If the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) permits the launch, a Falcon 9 rocket from Elon Musk’s SpaceX company will serve as a taxi into orbit, where a 30-meter-long diamond-shaped balloon will open. Its reflecting surface would also cast sunlight onto the shady side of the Earth and could be visible in the night sky without a telescope. An appeal to Kickstarter raised 76,000 dollars (65,000 euros) from Paglen and the Nevada Museum of Art, which supports the project – a fraction of the total cost of 1.3 million dollars (1.1 million euros).

  • “This project contributes nothing we don’t already have,” wrote scientist Mark McCaughrean of the European Space Agency (Esa) on Twitter.
  • “Many people would appreciate a little more respect for the natural world instead of adding another artificial construction,” says Caleb Scharf, director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center in New York, to Atlantic magazine.
  • The night sky is like a “threatened animal that can best be viewed in its natural state.

Who decides what’s dangerous and what’s useful, what’s garbage and what’s treasure?

US artist Paglen doesn’t see why his satellite out of hundreds should be the problem. Because the sculpture is supposed to enter the atmosphere and burn up after a few weeks, it “wouldn’t leave any traces,” the project promises. The website talks about a “temporary space gesture”. Paglan wants to encourage us to “look into the night sky with new amazement, examine our place in the universe and rethink how we live together on this planet”. And if art on Earth has no purpose but to serve itself, shouldn’t the same be true in space?

Already Russia’s avant-garde artist Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), who inspired Paglen, dreamed of a “sputnik” (Russian for companion or satellite) between moon and earth. As space travel became increasingly privatized, the understanding of what belongs in space and what doesn’t also changed. Elon Musk’s red electric sports car, which he sent into space with his Falcon Heavy rocket in February, was of no use to mankind.