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Artist Hopes Provocative Space Sculpture Prompts Conversations

Design concept rendering for Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector, co-produced and presented by the Nevada Museum of Art.

A piece of art the size of two school buses, and ten years in the making, is now orbiting Earth. Partnering with organizations in Northern Nevada, Berlin-based artist Trevor Paglen saw his sculpture take off and help change the way we see things in the night sky, as well as here on the ground. KUNR’s Holly Hutchings has more on the endeavor.

Normally, art is placed on gallery walls and sculptures are firmly planted. But this creation is different -- and much more cosmic. The Orbital Reflector is a purely artistic satellite now zipping around the earth, which - once fully inflated - will be a nearly 100-foot, diamond shaped super sun reflector. It’s kind of like an enormous, shiny mylar balloon. In the night sky, the sculpture will appear about as bright as a star in the Big Dipper. Close to 70 other satellites went up on the SpaceX rocket with the Orbital Reflector, but it is the only one that has no military, commercial or scientific purpose on this payload - or ever.

Some have asked why put art in space, lamenting that the atmosphere needs less, not more, stuff in it.

Paglen says that’s a sign the project is doing its job. 

A man in a black leather jacket grins, as he gently leans to one side while standing in front of a tree.
Credit Holly Hutchings
Artist Trevor Paglen's work has previously focused on mass surveillance and data collection. His Orbital Reflector is now circling the globe, prompting earthlings to look up.

“I think that's really fantastic to be having that conversation," Paglen said. "I mean, I think one big aspect of the project is thinking about what is public space? Who has the right to, kind of, do what--and, what things should it be used for? So, I think that having a conversation about what this shared resource is and who should be able to do what with it is very much in the spirit of the project.”

The Nevada Museum of Art co-produced and helped raise money for the project. CEO David Walker says this is an historic event for Reno, where the museum operates and reflects the frontier mindset Nevada is known for.

Credit Holly Hutchings
A thought from Artist Trevor Paglen greets visitors to an exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art that showcases his journey to launching his piece, Orbital Reflector.

“It's not something that most museums would undertake," Walker said. "I think that we like to think that the history of Nevada that has seen atomic tests and large-scale mining operations and military installations and large-scale land art and experimental communities like Burning Man. We like to think that this project continues that narrative. I don't think it would have resonated the same way had it been somewhere else in the US.” 

A long, white diamond shaped model reaching from floor to ceiling.
Credit Holly Hutchings
A model of the Orbital Reflector that hangs at the Nevada Museum of Art.

The artist, Paglen, says although this is a temporary gesture, he wants people to re-imagine a future and think about the infrastructures that surround us.

“For me, it's almost like making a sand painting, you know," Paglen said. "You make it and hopefully people can briefly enjoy it and then it blows away in the wind. You know, our satellite will decay in a few weeks and burn up as if it were never there.”

While it is, some wonder if an additional shiny object out there will get in the way of researchers working from observatories on Earth. Dr. Thomas Herring from the Jack C. Davis Observatory at Western Nevada College says probably not.

“My initial thought was, ‘How bright are they going to make this thing?’ because really bright stuff can obscure astronomical viewing, right?" Herring said. "When you get a full moon, you can't see as many things. I thought, ‘Oh boy, I better look this up.’ Turns out, as bright as a bright star but I don't think it's going to interfere with anything. And, of course, in low earth orbit, it'll go across the sky in a few minutes at most and it'll be an interesting thing to get people to go, 'Oh hey, what was that?'" 

Credit Holly Hutchings
A case at NMA that highlights the years of work to get the art satellite in space. It documents design sketches, balloon designs, cubesat fabrication, testing and - ultimately - the launch.

Herring appreciates the intersection of art and science, and says the two disciplines have more in common than we think. 

A man in a blue jacket stands next to a building with a sign that reads, "Jack C. Davis Observatory."
Credit Holly Hutchings
Thomas Herring is the director of the Jack C. Davis Observatory at Western Nevada College in Carson City, Nevada. He says he is excited to set his telescopes toward the sky, in search of the Orbital Reflector. Some of the astronomy students he teaches have also inquired about the satellite, and he says with their location and equipment, they have a great place to spot it.

“Artists and scientists are similar in that they're literally making up their job as they go along," Herring said. "Real cutting edge science and real cutting edge art is just making, we don't know. We don't know any of those answers. We don't know any of those processes. We're figuring them out and art and scientists are doing the same thing. They don't know what it's going to look like. They don't really know what it's going to say to people, but they're trying it anyway.”

The Orbital Reflector will fly 350 miles above Earth before ultimately burning up in Earth's atmosphere in a few months.

Visit the Orbital Reflector website to learn how follow the path of the satellite.

This story was reported with the help of Reporter Noah Glick. Listen to Noah's 2017 report, here.  

Holly Hutchings is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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