There are more than 1,800 active satellites currently in orbit around Earth, carrying out a myriad of jobs: collecting weather data, helping drivers navigate roads, spying on enemy targets, the list goes on. This fall, if all goes as planned, they will be joined by a small, boxlike satellite, launched into space atop a SpaceX rocket. It will appear, at first, quite ordinary; there are already hundreds of these small satellites, known as CubeSats, in orbit.
But when the CubeSat reaches a point about 350 miles above Earth, it will break open. Its silver, plasticlike contents will then unfurl into a 100-foot-long sculpture in the shape of a diamond. The result is called Orbital Reflector, the work of the artist Trevor Paglen, who wants it to be the “first satellite to exist purely as an artistic gesture.”
“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,” according to the project’s website.
For now, Orbital Reflector has reignited a debate in the astronomy community about what, exactly, belongs in space. The sculpture reminds some astronomers of another satellite, launched in January: the Humanity Star, a three-foot-tall spherical object built by the U.S. spaceflight company Rocket Lab and covered in dozens of highly reflective panels. Its purpose, too, was simply to be seen from Earth. “My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, explained.