Paglen is a geographer and artist who was awarded a 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellowship (a “genius grant”) and will have an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution next year. As he notes on his Kickstarter page for the project, “the Orbital Reflector is a satellite that will have no commercial, military, or scientific purpose. Instead, it will be a public sculpture, visible from the ground without a telescope — a satellite that belongs to everyone.”
The sculpture is created with thin, light, Mylar-like sheets, and it will be sent 350 miles into the heavens on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket aboard a small satellite known as a CubeSat. It’s tentatively scheduled for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base next spring. Once deployed, the Orbital Reflector will inflate and circle the globe once every three hours until it dies a fiery death upon reentry into the atmosphere in approximately two months.
The balloon will reflect light back to Earth, making it visible with the naked eye. Paglen plans to partner with the sky-watching app Star Walk 2 to let observers know when it will be visible in their location. You’ll also be able to track the satellite as it passes overhead from their website at orbitalreflector.com.
The normally staid and analytical scientists working on the project are excited to participate in something so inspirational. “It’s different than anything I’ve ever worked on,” said aerospace engineer Mark Caviezel. “Being artistic, it’s a lot cooler than a lot of satellites, and it’s refreshing that in our uptight kind of way, we can sort of let our hair down on this.”
Paglen’s earlier space project was “The Last Pictures,” a collection of images from Earth launched into orbit in 2012. He said his inspiration for this latest endeavor goes back to Echo 1 and 2, NASA’s earliest communication satellites from the early 1960s launched in response to Sputnik. He hopes the Orbital Reflector causes people to gaze up to the heavens and consider their place in the universe.
“We humans have always looked to the sky as a sounding board for asking big questions about ourselves: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?”