Space art annoys astronomers

“Shiny shit” or inspiration? An artist wants to shoot a sculpture into space and make you think. Researchers take a critical view. It’s also about the fundamental: what belongs in space and what doesn’t?


There is a lot going on in Earth orbit: According to Uno, about 1800 satellites orbit around the planet, and in 2017 alone a good 550 new objects were registered. The spacecraft collect weather data, help navigate or spy on enemy targets. Or they control ship traffic, coordinate time in power grids, banks and computer networks. In view of this abundance, scientists and artists are discussing an action that many researchers are critical of:

Trevor Paglen plans to launch his dazzling satellite “Orbital Reflector” in mid-November

The sculpture is to fly 580 kilometres above the earth’s surface, transforming space into a kind of open-air museum for Earth’s inhabitants. Some scientists consider the project simply to be scrap metal – or to be more precise space scrap.

Because “Orbital Reflector” has no technical function, it is meant as a “purely artistic gesture” and “does not serve any military, commercial or scientific purposes”, according to a video on the project. “It is in many ways the opposite of any satellite that has ever been placed in orbit.

Exactly this purposelessness makes some astronomers groan. When aeronautical engineer Peter Beck from New Zealand shot a kind of disco ball called “Humanity Star” into space in January – also as an object of art – some feared for the accuracy of their measurements. “It’s the space equivalent of a neon-colored billboard right in front of your bedroom,” said astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), run by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution. The online magazine “Gizmodo” expressed itself much more drastically: “Hey artist, stop putting shiny shit into space.”

“Who decides what’s dangerous and what’s useful, what’s garbage and what’s treasure,” asks Nasa scholarship holder Lisa Ruth Rand in an interview with the Atlantic. If the U.S. FCC (Federal Communications Commission) permits the launch, a “Falcon 9” rocket from SpaceX will serve as a transporter into orbit, where a 30-meter-long diamond-shaped balloon will open. But a ban by the authorities could drive artists onto the barricades, a permit could serve as a free ride for further art projects.

One graffiti is another’s street art

After all, the project could also please many people. The reflective surface of “Orbital Reflector” is supposed to cast sunlight onto the shady side of the Earth and could be visible in the night sky without a telescope. Paglen and the Nevada Museum of Art, which supports the project, raised about 76,000 dollars (about 65,000 euros) – a fraction of the total cost of about 1.1 million euros.

“This project contributes nothing we don’t already have,” wrote scientist Mark McCaughrean of the European Space Agency (Esa) on Twitter. “Many people would appreciate a little more respect for the natural world instead of adding another artificial construction,” says Caleb Scharf, director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center in New York. The night sky is like a “threatened animal that can best be viewed in its natural state.

US artist Paglen doesn’t see why his satellite among hundreds should be the problem. Because the sculpture is supposed to enter the atmosphere after a few weeks and burn up, it “wouldn’t leave any traces,” the project promises. The website talks about a “temporary space gesture”. Paglen wants to encourage us to “look into the night sky with new amazement, examine our place in the universe and rethink how we live together on this planet”. And if art on Earth has no purpose but to serve itself, shouldn’t the same be true in space?

Already Russia’s avant-garde artist Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), who inspired Paglen, dreamed of a “sputnik” (Russian for companion or satellite) between moon and earth. As space travel became increasingly privatized, the understanding of what belonged and did belong in space also changed.


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