A New "Space Sculpture" Is Launching Soon And Astronomers Hate It Already

A concept of the finished structure in space. Nevada Museum of Art/Trevor Paglen

An artist from Berlin may be risking the ire of astronomers after revealing a new “space art” project to orbit Earth.

Trevor Paglen, in partnership with the Nevada Museum of Art, has been working on his Orbital Reflector idea for 10 years. The idea is to deploy a giant reflective object in space stretching 30 meters (100 feet) across, purely for artistic purposes so that people can see the glint of it in the night sky, at a height of about 575 kilometers (350 miles).

The structure will launch folded up inside a small CubeSat satellite the size of a briefcase, and expand once it is in orbit. It is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at an unconfirmed date in November, along with a number of other satellites on a “rideshare” mission.

“Orbital Reflector encourages all of us to look up at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder, to consider our place in the universe, and to reimagine how we live together on this planet,” a website for the project notes.

And that has not been music to the ears of astronomers. You might remember at the start of the year, people weren’t too happy about the fledgling US company Rocket Lab launching a similar bright object called Humanity Star on its inaugural rocket.

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Similar complaints are arising here. One of the major issues is these bright artificial objects can hamper astronomical observations. While astronomers can plan for the passing of more regular satellites, erroneous objects like this can cause issues – and if this sets a precedent for more in future, that would be disastrous.

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Paglen is also inadvertently adding to the space junk problem. While his reflector is designed to re-enter the atmosphere in weeks, it is still another piece of superfluous debris. What’s more, at its intended orbital height it’s not completely clear if it will re-enter in weeks as planned, or stay up for much longer.

“This project seems to me to be a new form of pollution, a light in the sky placed there for no reason other than to shine,” Chris Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University and BBC Sky at Night presenter, told IFLScience.

“Really, I fear it’s the tip of the iceberg. Today it’s a well-meaning artist, but tomorrow it might be Coca-Cola deciding to ‘inspire humanity’ with an orbiting advert for the latest soft drink.

“This isn’t public art – it’s graffiti, a scribbling across the sky without invitation or thought.”

It might be well-meaning, but when this does launch, it probably won’t go down too well. If you really want to see an artificial object in space, why not just look for the International Space Station (ISS) instead?

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