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Rendering of Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, 2017.
Rendering of Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, 2017.

Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, the World’s First Art Satellite, Is Lost in Space

Orbital Reflector, a satellite containing an inflatable sculpture designed by artist Trevor Paglen, is officially lost in space. The Nevada Museum of Art, which helped realize the $1.5 million work, declared today that it is unable to track the satellite.  

Following the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 3, a one-hundred-foot-long diamond-shaped balloon that was being carried by one of the rocket’s sixty-four satellites was supposed to deploy and inflate at a distance of about 350 miles from Earth. However, due to the United States’ record-long government shutdown and a complication with the satellite’s position, the Reno-based museum lost communication with Orbital Reflector.

The institution needed approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to release the kinetic sculpture. Because of the large number of satellites on the rocket, the FCC was unable to give the green light for deployment until it drifted away from the others, and it was hindered in its monitoring of Orbital Reflector by the government shutdown. Officials were not able to contact the museum about the status of the project until after President Donald Trump reopened the government on January 25.

If the balloon had been able to inflate, it would have been able to reflect sunlight back to Earth. According to the museum, it would have appeared as a “fast moving ‘star’” before it disintegrated several weeks later, after it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. When Paglen announced the project in 2015, he said that it would be the first satellite in space to exist purely as an artistic gesture. In 2017, the artist raised $76,053 for the project on Kickstarter.

Even though the work was not activated, the museum still considers Orbital Reflector a success. “The museum raised funds above and beyond its regular operating budget to support the project,” the institution said in a statement. “The purpose of Paglen’s space-bound sculpture was to employ art as a means by which to encourage people around the world to see the sky with fresh eyes and to re-envision space as a place of possibility. . . . Paglen’s radically experimental endeavor will be forever etched into the narrative of twenty-first century contemporary art practice.”