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Hey Artists, Stop Putting Shiny **** Into Space

Aug 22, 2018

By: George Dvorsky


As if there isn’t already enough junk in space, an artist is planning to launch a reflective, inflatable sculpture to low Earth orbit in October. The art piece is meant to instill a sense of wonder and alter humanity’s impression of itself, but in reality it’s an empty gesture that’ll only serve to infuriate astronomers.


It’s called the Orbital Reflector, and it’s the brainchild of U.S. artist Trevor Paglen. Once it’s unfurled and fully erect, the space-based sculpture will be visible in the night sky, appearing as a fast-moving bright star. Paglen’s installation will stay in low Earth orbit for a minimum of 60 days (though it could be longer), after which time it will, mercifully, re-enter the atmosphere and burn to a crisp.

Unfortunately, it will be the second time this year that an artist has sent a reflective sculpture into space. Back in January, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck placed his three-foot-wide mirror ball, called Humanity Star, into orbit, attracting the ire of scientists, who complained that the bright object might interfere with astronomical observations. Sending twinkly, useless objects into orbit is apparently trendy now.

As Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Gizmodo earlier this year, “It’s the space equivalent of someone putting a neon advertising billboard right outside your bedroom window.” Indeed, Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, which is about the length of a football field, has the potential to be even more annoying than Beck’s disco ball, despite its potentially brief life.

The diamond-shaped sculpture is made from a lightweight material similar to Mylar, and it’ll be packed inside a CubeSat. The satellite itself will be integrated into a low free flyer, a device that’ll be placed into a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Once in low Earth orbit, the free flyers will dispense over 70 satellites at various intervals, including the CubeSat containing the collapsed sculpture. Following deployment, the sculpture should inflate into a large reflective balloon, orbiting the planet at a height of 350 miles (575 km) once every 90 minutes. Paglen has teamed up with the Nevada Museum of Art, Spaceflight Industries, and engineers from Global Western, a small, independent aerospace firm, to make this project happen. Launch of the Falcon 9 is expected in late October.

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