Orbital Reflector is a sculpture constructed of a lightweight material similar to Mylar that will be an orbiting sculpture visible from Earth with the naked eye.
Orbital Reflector is unique sculpture by artist Trevor Paglen that will launch aboard Spaceflight’s SSO-A mission and will appear in the night sky, with tracking systems that allow observers to follow it and see when it will appear overhead in their area. It is purely artistic impression – there is no commercial, scientific, military purpose. Instead, the artist and the museum hope to inspire viewers to think about space differently, and of all that is possible. They hope to continue conversations about the value of space exploration and discovery, and where the human race is headed. It will also provide educational opportunities for students in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) with website tools and lesson plans that will detail the engineering design process and will align with National Core Arts Standards for students in grades 9-12.
Trevor Paglen, a MacArthur Genius grant winner, has described Orbital Reflector as a “neo minimalist sculpture”.
The sculpture will launch on a cubesat. Once dispensed and in the proper Low Earth Orbit, a 100 foot reflective “balloon” will deploy. This this the portion that will be reflect light and be visible from Earth. The artwork is not permanent. It will de-orbit in a few months, and burn up in the atmosphere, leaving no trace behind and no space debris.
Exciting a New Audience about Space Exploration
The project began as an idea of the artist, and got a start through a Kickstarter campaign in 201X. It was supported by 557 backers who raised more than $76,000 to bring the idea to life. Since then, the audience has grown, and more than 22,000 museum fans are anxiously looking forward to launch as well as the thousands more who have read about it since the project’s announcement.
“This is ultimately about how art and technology intersect,” says Amanda Horn, Director of Communications for the Nevada Museum of Art. “Art gives us permission to look at things differently. What would it be like if space travel was not just commercial? We hope Orbital Reflector will inspire people to consider a different future. Also, to engage with people who are artists or other people who might not be interested in space. We worked with aerospace engineers and industry experts, but our worldwide audience is across the spectrum of interests.”
Though this is a unique payload, it still represents the best engineering available. The artist and museum partnered with an aerospace engineering firm to build the satellite and balloon. They then sought help with booking a launch for their project. The experienced industry experts and the engineers gave them a few options, but ultimately pointed them to Spaceflight.
As a first time launcher, the museum worked especially closely with their Spaceflight mission manager. “She is a co-member of our team,” says Horn. “This is a unique satellite and we’ve had challenges. Annie has helped us work all of them out, letting us know what considerations need to be taken into account. We are an institution that plans a lot around an exhibition with firm dates. None of that applies to this project, but it becomes part of the story,” says Horn.
Telling the Story
This is a unique mission, as the audience for Orbital Reflector has been following its progress since inception, and telling the story of it is very important. They have photographed and filmed many portions of the actual satellite build process. Their Spaceflight mission manager has been working with them to help them document and photograph parts of their continuing journey up to launch date, while abiding by requirements and regulations. At launch time, the museum is planning a “virtual launch viewing” on Facebook so fans can share the excitement of the big day, with on-the-ground reporting from the launch site.
The Future of Technology and Art
Orbital Reflector is a new phase in public art. We think it will inspire many and help bring many new voices to the conversation about space exploration, while at the same time serving educational goals and training the next generation of scientists and artists.