The satellite sculpture “Orbital Reflector” by US artist Trevor Paglen has failed to shut down the US government; this saved astronomers another “disco ball” in the sky. The Nevada Museum of Art has now announced this and explained the background to the failed art installation.
Therefore, two external circumstances have caused the project to fail: the launch with a total of 63 other satellites aboard a SpaceX rocket and the longest shutdown of the US government initiated a few weeks after this launch.
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An artificial star in the night sky
The satellite “Orbital Reflector” was supposed to open a 30-meter-long, diamond-shaped balloon at a height of 580 kilometers. Its reflective surface should then reflect the sunlight and would have been visible on Earth without a telescope in the night sky. On Kickstarter, the creators had collected $ 76,000 for the total cost then amounted to 1.3 million US dollars. The satellite was intended as a purely artistic action and served no military, commercial or scientific purposes, as it was emphasized.
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The “Orbital Reflector” had been launched into space on December 3 by a SpaceX missile that had more satellites on board than any private rocket before. The still packed satellite had been successfully separated, but the other satellites were still circling around with it. Only when a sufficient distance had been established to them, the balloon should have opened. However, the satellite had to be found from Earth and received its own identifier. That’s the job of the US Air Force. The artists themselves had successfully established contact with their satellite.
As the museum explains, two unforeseen things happened. For a start, the US Air Force was for a long time unable to separate the individual satellites. Thus, the “Orbital Reflector” did not receive its own identifier, which is why the US Federal Department of Communications (FCC) responsible for this could not have allowed the opening of the sculpture.
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As of December 22, the FCC was hit and shut down by the US government’s decommissioning . When the US government resumed work at the end of January, the Orbital Reflector, not designed for such a wait, had ceased its work.
Criticism of astronomers
At least many astronomers should not have a problem with this result. Many had already criticized the beginning of 2018 burnt-out “Humanity Star”. From this “disco ball” she feared her disturbances of her observations and spoke of “ecological vandalism”. “Many people would appreciate a bit more reverence for the natural world than add another artificial construction,” Caleb Scharf said, director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center in New York. The night sky is like a “threatened animal, which is best viewed in a natural state”.
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Paglen himself had not wanted to see why his satellite among hundreds should be the problem. Even if everything had gone to plan, the sculpture should enter the atmosphere after a few weeks and burn up. So she would have “left no traces”, promised the makers.
They promised a “temporary space gesture”. Paglen wanted to encourage them to “look into the night sky with new wonder, to test our place in the universe, and to rethink how we live together on this planet.” Whether he wants to risk a new start, is not known.