One night in mid-April 1981 I was out in my backyard and looked up and could see a small bright dot moving across the sky just overhead. It was the Space Shuttle Columbia on its first flight. It was staggering to think that it was in orbit, a tiny object above the atmosphere, but it could still be seen. It made all of space seem within reach.
I was reminded of that when I heard that the artist Trevor Paglan designed a completely nonfunctional satellite called “Orbital Reflector” that was then launched into orbit by Space X on December 3rd, 2018. Its long mylar blade was supposed to be inflated so it would reflect sunlight, making it visible from Earth, but that part of the project was put on hold by the U.S. government shutdown. Without government approval the reflector part still remains on hold. It’s not what the artist intended but it’s a fitting metaphor for the aspirations and failures of humanity. Also sometime in March it will fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, whether its reflector is deployed or not, and that’s a fitting metaphor too. All of human history, and prehistory, wouldn’t add up to a single tick of the cosmic clock. Paglan’s work is also intended to challenge ideas of who owns space, and what it’s meant to be used for–or not used for, since his satellite is purely aesthetic.
And I can think of a lot of reasons why this is a really intriguing work of art, an interesting and challenging idea, but I can think of more reasons why it’s a really bad idea. Even within its short lifespan it’s junking up space around the Earth. The reason its final deployment was delayed by the shutdown, the reason the position of any satellite has to be carefully planned, is there’s a lot of stuff floating around the Earth, and that stuff is moving at really high speeds. It turns out nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum–only dogs don’t want the carpet cleaned, but that’s another story–and objects in orbit aren’t subject to terrestrial inertia. At those speeds collisions can be spectacular.
Even with its blade unfurled the Orbital Reflector would hardly be the only artificial object visible from the ground. Stand in the right place at the right time, and in an area away from enough light pollution, and you can see the International Space Station and other satellites–in particular the sixty-six Iridium satellites that are known to flare and disappear in a few seconds. They’re commercial satellites, providing communication services, which, if you see space as something that connects us all–we all look up at the same stars, watch the same Sun, Moon, and planets move through the sky and the exploration of space is a collective project–seems like a more fitting, and functional, metaphor.