Space Art Is Causing a Ruckus Among Astronomers

The line between culture and clutter can be hard to trace, even hundreds of miles above Earth.


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.

Some astronomers think that objects like the Humanity Star and Orbital Reflector—passive, flashy satellites without a clear scientific or commercial purpose—don’t belong in space. They warn that very bright objects could disrupt astronomical observations by ground- and space-based telescopes if they zoomed through their fields of view at the wrong time. They argue that launching satellites without a scientific purpose amounts to the pollution of near-Earth orbit, an increasingly crowded place where even the International Space Station has to adjust its orbit every now and then to avoid colliding with debris.

“This project brings nothing that we don’t have already,” Mark McCaughrean, a scientist at the European Space Agency, tweeted recently about Orbital Reflector. “We already have plenty of moving lights in the sky to engage the public with & draw them to the majesty of the night.”

For some astronomers, the space around Earth is akin to terrestrial areas that people have long sought to shield from the effects of human encroachment. Like glacial waters or wildlife habitats, the space above our heads requires protection, they say.

“I think that most people would appreciate a little more reverence for the natural world rather than inserting yet another artificial structure,” Caleb Scharf, the director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center, told me this week. “Paglen is highly creative, and has clearly delved deep into this work, but for those of us who spend our lives contemplating and communicating the cosmic, this seems to miss the critical point that the unobscured night sky is an endangered beast best seen in the raw.”

Paglen, the artist behind Orbital Reflector—known for his work photographing scenes from U.S. surveillance infrastructure—isn’t buying it.

“Why is Orbital Reflector specifically more problematic than the hundreds of other satellites and rocket bodies launched each year?” Paglen asked in a recent interview with ArtNet. He chafed at astronomers who wonder why someone would want to launch a satellite without a specific purpose, in the traditional sense.

“Implicit in that question is the idea that art is not a good thing and that artists should not be participating in this form of production,” Paglen said. “Why are we offended by a sculpture in space, but we’re not offending by nuclear missile targeting devices or mass surveillance devices, or satellites with nuclear engines that have a potential to fall to earth and scatter radioactive waste all over the place?”

Astronomers don’t overlook these types of satellites, Scharf says. “A majority of scientists are indeed pretty offended by the military or surveillance use of space, and likely more concerned about those uses than a short-lived artistic satellite,” he says.

But Paglen’s response raises an interesting question: Is there a place for art in the sea of satellites around Earth?

“You keep insisting it has to have some scientific, educational or commercial purpose,” said Marco Langbroek, an archaeologist and amateur astronomer in the Netherlands, in response to McCaughrean’s tweet. “Why? Art needs not to be any of those. What makes Orbital Reflector different and unique, and art indeed, is that none of the objects orbiting our planet were meant to be art and nothing more.”

This argument is only possible because of a fairly recent shift in the American spaceflight business. In the past decade, commercial companies have nudged federal agencies out of their role as the sole gatekeepers to space. These days, admission to low-Earth orbit is only a very expensive ticket away. The Nevada Museum of Art, which is co-producing Orbital Reflector, contributed between $250,000 and $500,000 to buy the sculpture a spot on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch in November, according to a museum spokesperson.

As launch capabilities have shifted from traditional to new providers, so has the decision making about what, exactly, to launch. In this new landscape, “who gets to decide what’s dangerous, what’s useful, what is trash, what is treasure?” asks Lisa Ruth Rand, an American Historical Association–NASA fellow in space history who studies the environment in low-Earth orbit.

The short answer is the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. government agency that oversees satellite launches. Anything bound for orbit around Earth must first be authorized by the FCC. The FCC has shown it’s willing to authorize the launch of objects without scientific, commercial, military, or other similar purposes: It approved the launch of the Humanity Star in January, and the launch of Elon Musk’s cherry-red Tesla in February. This precedent suggests the chances are good for Orbital Reflector, which is still awaiting approval, according to the Nevada Museum of Art. Rejecting the application would send a strong message about what does and doesn’t belong in space.

The long, and slightly more complicated, answer is, well, us. When the earliest treaties for the use of outer space were signed among nations in the 1960s, it was understood that the exploration of space should be undertaken “for peaceful purposes,” and “shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.” No nuclear weapons, no weapons of mass destruction, no war. That premise remains, but the nature of the objects spacefaring nations have launched into orbit has changed dramatically since then. Today, satellites track the migration of animal populations; control shipping traffic on the seas; and synchronize time for electric grids, computer networks, financial institutions, and countless other pieces of society’s well-oiled infrastructure. Someday, perhaps soon, they’ll provide internet on Earth.

These satellites, of course, all have “purposes” in the straightforward sense. Like Paglen’s shiny, diamond-shaped sculpture, many of them may not have seemed possible, or even necessary, years ago. As technology has changed, so has the definition of what belongs in space—and not everyone has agreed along the way. “One man’s graffiti is another man’s street art,” Rand says, on Earth and in space.

Like the Humanity Star, Orbital Reflector will be a short-lived effort. Its fate will be decided not by the people who sent it into orbit, but by the environment itself. The low-Earth environment may be Space with a capital S, but it still has enough air particles to slow down any moving objects. So as Orbital Reflector travels through this atmosphere, it will experience a dragging force in the direction opposite to the direction it’s moving. It will lose altitude, or, in astronomy parlance, its orbits will begin to decay. Eventually, the sculpture will succumb to the tug of Earth’s gravity and get pulled into the planet’s atmosphere, where it will crumble into dust.