Astronomers Aren't Happy With An Artist Who's About To Send A New 'Star' Into Space Aboard A SpaceX Rocket

A controversial US artist is on track to have his crowdfunded “star” launched into orbit aboard a SpaceX rocket.

Although we shouldn’t call Trevor Paglen’s hard work a “star”, because obviously, it isn’t a star. And even though it will rival the Big Dipper for brightness, the 33-metre reflective obelisk is an installation, and one Paglen has worked hard on for 10 years.

Paglen takes his work seriously, and so should we. He’s made a name for himself and won several prestigious awards by focusing on mass surveillance. He’s written several books about the CIA and secrecy in the US, and once sent 100 pictures hurtling through space for other civilisations to find.

But two months before it’s even released, Paglen’s latest work, “Orbital Reflector”, is already making people sit up and take notice. When it is released, they’ll keep paying attention to it for three months, because that’s how long you’ll be able to see it shining at night as it orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, 560km above us.

Technically, it’s a “temporary satellite”. Paglen has called upon a $US76,000 Kickstarter donation, the Nevada Museum of Art, and aerospace company Spaceflight Industries to create it. When it’s finished, it will have cost somewhere in the order of $US1.3 million to create.

The diamond-shaped polyethylene balloon is coated with titanium dioxide to make it as shiny as possible. It will be packed into a CubeSat and when it reaches its destination, a carbon dioxide charge will inflate it.

As long as it stays up without disintegrating — and that should be at least two months — it will reflect the Sun’s rays back to Earth.

You definitely will be able to see it at night.

Paglen with an early prototype. Picture: Metro Pictures

Some astronomers — and journalists — are annoyed about that, because we’ve got enough debris surrounding our planet without having to deliberately add to it. And apparently, even just one extra shiny object can cause enough light pollution to get in the way of serious scientific observation.

The point is, it’s not just one extra object. Earlier this year, New Zealand startup Rocket Lab kind of snuck a massive disco ball into space, but it didn’t last as long as they thought it would and disintegrated after about two months.

“It’s the space equivalent of someone putting a neon advertising billboard right outside your bedroom window,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, told Gizmodo.

So it’s possible we’re seeing the start of a bit of a run on space as a new frontier for art. And quite likely, advertising.

“What this calls for is a more detailed and widespread engagement of moral and ethical implications of space exploration, as well as an internationally acknowledged legislation on space and its responsible usage,” Dr Daniel Brown, an astrophysicist at Nottingham Trent University, told The Times.

Space debris is certainly a problem that humans seem to be doing their best to ignore because thinking about it too much might get in the way of cool projects like blanketing the Earth with tens of thousands of nanosatellites giving us all amazing internet coverage.

But that’s exactly the point of Orbital Reflector. It’s supposed to make us more aware of all that activity way up there that’s driving our lives down here. “By transforming ‘space’ into ‘place’,” the project website says, “it makes visible the invisible, thereby rekindling our imaginations and fueling potential for the future.”

SpaceX via Getty Image. No, this is ludicrous.

Paglen recently responded to his critics in an email to artnet, saying:

“It’s incredibly unlikely that Orbital Reflector would move through the field-of-view of a telescope right in the middle of an important observation and thereby ruin the observation.”

And why, he asks, is it any more of a problem for stargazers than any of the other hundreds of satellites due to launch every year, soon to build to thousands?

Paglen still doesn’t have clearance from the US Federal Communications Commission to place his CubeSat aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that is due to be launched as early as late October.

A rocket from the same company, it has to be noted, that sent a Tesla Roadster hurtling through the galaxy to mostly widespread cheers of acclaim earlier this year.

At least Paglen can assure us that his space junk will burn up within a couple of months.

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