On December 3, the SpaceX Flacon 9 rocket departed from Vandenberg Air Force Base, located north of Santa Barbara, California, carrying 64 satellites from 34 organizations and 17 different countries.

Among all these satellites, mainly intended for observation, communication or science projects, one of them was sent into space with the sole aim of encouraging people to look to the sky and see an unusual object.

The creator of this satellite, the artist Trevor Paglen, worked on the project for many years and attended test series on its creation before the launch in orbit. "The goal for me was really to create a sort of catalyst for people to look up at the sky and think of everything from planets to satellites, celestial bodies to public spaces, and wonder: what does it mean to be on this planet?" Paglen told Wired.

The artist Trevor Paglen in Studio City, California, image ©Maggie Shannon The artist Trevor Paglen in Studio City, California, image ©Maggie Shannon

The project was made possible thanks to the support of the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, which contributed a large portion of the satellite's funding (nearly $1.5 million), alongside private donors and a Kickstarter campaign. Paglen described his work as "the first satellite to exist only as an artistic gesture".

So what is Orbital Reflector? Once in orbit about 350 miles from the earth, the satellite will release a small side hatch to let the work expand and take the form of a gigantic diamond. The structure made of Mylar, a high-density polyethylene coated with a titanium dioxide powder, will allow the work to reflect the sunlight like a huge mirror ball, giving it the appearance of a star when it is observed from the ground.

Orbital Reflector was thought to be visible to anyone looking at a clear sky at the right time. "The goal was to make a satellite that would be the exact opposite of all the others," said the artist. It does not have any utilitarian function, and after two or three months, it should slowly sink back to the ground and disintegrate upon re-entry into the atmosphere.

Trevor Paglan has distinguished himself as one of the most provocative artists of this "ultra-monitored" era, challenging the notions of intimacy and security through works infused with technology.

Paglen with his Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 4; Build 4), 2013, image © Altman Siegel Gallery and Metro Pictures Paglen with his Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 4; Build 4), 2013, image © Altman Siegel Gallery and Metro Pictures

This ephemeral work would therefore be a logical continuation of Paglen's artistic career. The artist invites the viewer to question the "space industry", and the way the sky is invaded by good and bad intentions of man. Paglen also commented on one of the objects of the cargo that took off with his work, "a commercial spy satellite. They would not call it that, but that's clearly what it is. "

The project is extremely innovative, but has also been criticized for its exorbitant cost. The Nevada Museum of Art, however, has been very creative in setting up and organizing a project such as this one internally. The institution has even developed a program around the idea, assuming some responsibility in the event of failure. This is a risky bet for a museum institution, but one that was important to them. The Nevada Museum has a monumental archive dedicated to land art, and sees the creation of Paglen as "a land art work in the sky."

Image © Artist and Nevada Museum of Art Image © Artist and Nevada Museum of Art

According to Zia Oboodiyat, the project's chief engineer, the space industry is evolving. Instead of spending hundreds of millions, it is now possible to build one's own satellite for one or two million, and to conduct experiments.

Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, SpaceX has positioned itself as the leading private space transportation company and has had more than 64 launches since the start of the Falcon 9 rocket in 2010. The total investment in private space companies is estimated at $4 billion for 2017. In 2018, 72 in-orbit launches were orchestrated.

According to a statement released by the Nevada Museum of Art on January 18, 2019, the Paglen satellite has not yet been located. Enthusiasts and art lovers have held their breath for almost six weeks, waiting to see the structure appear in the starry sky. If the satellite has arrived in the low Earth orbit, the identification process is more complicated than expected. A division of the US Air Force, called CSpOC, was tasked to identify each of the 64 satellites launched aboard Falcon 9, in order to trace their path around the earth. The task is therefore far from over because, to date, only half of the satellites have been located.

Image ©Artiste et Nevada Museum of Art Image ©Artiste et Nevada Museum of Art

Many satellites form a kind of cluster, and stay too close to each other to advance the mission. The museum has no news regarding the time of visibility. The structure of Orbital Reflector is almost almost 100 feet long, and engineers must know the position of the satellite to ensure that a safe space around the work is respected. It remains to be seen if the device will hold enough time in orbit to be able to deploy the work.

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