There’s a good reason that most astronomical observatories are located in distant, uninhabited locations like Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and Chile’s Atacama Desert. The presence of light pollution from cities, even small villages, can absolutely destroy a telescope’s ability to accurately envision the cosmos and measure its stars. The same goes for bright satellites and space junk that clutter Earth’s orbit, sometimes distorting a scientist’s ability to gain a clear view of the universe.
Which is why astronomers are not particularly pleased with Trevor Paglen, the artist who has crowdfunded a project to launch an extremely reflective sculpture into the stratosphere.
“Orbital Reflector” is a 100-foot-long, diamond-shaped polyethylene balloon coated with titanium dioxide so shiny that it looks like mylar. How does it work? Once the sculpture reaches its low orbit about 360 miles above the earth’s surface, a carbon dioxide cartridge will inflate the piece, allowing it to reflect the rays of the sun back to Earth, even during nighttime. The piece would remain in the sky for approximately two months after its scheduled launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket leaving the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in mid-November.
Supported by the aerospace design firm Global Westsern and Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art, “Orbital Reflector” raised nearly $76,000 last year on its Kickstarter page. And according to the project’s fundraising pitch, it will be the “first satellite in space that would exist purely as an artistic gesture.”
“Any disruption will be minimal at best,” Amanda Horn, the director of communications for the Nevada Museum of Art, told artnet News. “Because people have a hard time imagining what this artwork will be, I think that their minds run amok. It will appear about as bright as a star in the Big Dipper. It’s about the length of two school buses, and it will be moving very quickly. A full orbit will take about 94 minutes.”
Shooting unnecessary satellites into space has become a wealthy man’s indulgence, spurred by the hefty investments in space tourism in the past few decades. Still, Paglen tells Hyperallergic that complaints in the media are largely overplayed considering the short length of his satellite’s stay in space: “I definitely understand how some people might feel vaguely morally offended by the project, but I’d like to drill down on what legitimate concerns astronomers might have.”
To that end, Paglen has posed a series of questions for astronomers that aim to rebuff their accusations: How is his art specifically a hinderance to astronomical work compared to the hundreds of other satellites and rockets launched each year? Further, how is it more disruptive to this work than an airplane or weather balloon? Do scientists think that “Orbital Reflector” is a net loss for the field when comparing its pedagogical work to their scientific research?
Known for his work documenting surveillance technology, Paglen is an artist who wants to blur the lines between science, art, journalism, and geography. But scientists seem less-enthused about any projects that could blur their telescopes. “Humanity Star” is a different project by the space startup Rocket Lab that will essentially launch a giant disco ball satellite into space. Potentially far brighter than Paglen’s work, astronomers are nonetheless displeased. “What is particularly annoying about this satellite is that it is designed to be visually bright and has no other purpose,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Gizmodo. “It’s the space equivalent of someone putting a neon advertising billboard right outside your bedroom window.”