Artist Trevor Paglen wanted to give people a reason to look up. Working with the Nevada Museum of Art, he created the Orbital Reflector, a 98-foot-long (30-meter) sculpture constructed of a lightweight material similar to Mylar. Don’t expect it to turn up in a museum anytime soon — to see it you’ll have to literally stare into space 350 miles (575 km) above the Earth’s surface. The artwork will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Monday, Nov. 19 at 9:32 a.m. Central Time. Packed inside a brick-sized satellite called a CubeSat, the sculpture will self-inflate like a balloon when it reaches low-Earth orbit. (Update Nov. 18: Launch has been postponed until after Thanksgiving.)
Once the sculpture assumes its full diamond shape, sunlight reflecting from its metallic skin will make the object shine as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper or about second magnitude.
Paglen’s project is one of some 64 payloads from nearly 50 governments and businesses from 16 countries packed into the SSO-A rideshare mission. Orbital Reflector is unique in being the first to have no military, scientific or commercial purpose; it’s purely an artistic gesture.
“I think one of the most important things art can do is give you a reason to look at something,” said Paglen. One could easily argue that the stars and planets are reason enough to look up but the more reasons, the merrier!
The sculpture will inflate into a very elongated, almost needle-like structure just 4.6 feet (1.4-meter) wide by 98 feet (30-meter) long. In comparison, the International Space Station (ISS) is 356 feet (109 m) long by 240 feet (73 m) wide. To the eye it will look exactly like a moving “star,” the same as any other satellite. But what about through a telescope?
It’s relatively easy to see the shape of the ISS and its 240-foot-long solar arrays in a telescope magnifying about 50x or higher. Paglen’s artwork is a little less than half the length of one of those arrays, so my hunch is it will appear as a short, thread-like line of light as it glides across the sky. Keeping it in the field of view will be challenging, and you’ll need a magnification of around 100x, but it will be well worth the effort if only as a unique way to contemplate art.
I know that some of you reading this believe the last thing we need is another satellite junking up near-Earth space. But keep an open mind — consider that the project is temporary with an approximately 8-month lifetime much like an art exhibition that’s only on display for a limited time.
The satellite was originally supposed to launch this past summer and cross the night sky over North America, but launch delays moved it to November. Unfortunately, it won’t be making any passes in a dark sky over northern hemisphere locations for a while. However, if you live in South America, Australia and New Zealand, you’ll have lots of opportunities for a look as soon as the Orbiter is deployed.
Due to its unusual shape and low mass, satellite-observing expert Dr. Marco Langbroek expects it will remain in orbit for only about 8 months before it burns up in the atmosphere: “This object, being of low mass and large surface once the balloon is inflated, will experience considerable solar radiation pressure (literally, the push of sunlight),” wrote Langbroek in an e-mail.
Light pressure will quickly change its orbit into a loop that will bring the balloon closer and closer to the Earth until it ultimately burns up in the atmosphere. Langbroek modeled the satellite’s evolution once in orbit and predicts that it will re-enter sometime in late July next year. Though he cautions that objects with unusual shapes make for tricky predictions, that’s enough time for northern skywatchers to have a go at viewing it before it perishes as a flaring meteor.
As we tilt our collective heads back to look at the sky, Paglen would have us consider the larger context of his art piece, that “it is possible to imagine different presents and to imagine different futures. And not only to imagine them but actually try to make them.”
Check back here from time to time or follow my Twitter feed at @astrobob_bk for updates on visibility, the launch date and other sky phenomena.