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Government shutdown delays deployment of orbital art satellite

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A rendering of Orbital Reflector with its 100-foot-long balloon deployed. (Trevor Paglen/ Nevada Museum of Art)
A rendering of Orbital Reflector with its 100-foot-long balloon deployed. (Trevor Paglen/ Nevada Museum of Art)

After a successful Kickstarter campaign raised over $76,000 to launch the world’s first “space sculpture” into orbit, plans to deploy the 100-foot-long reflective balloon have been put on hold thanks to the record-breaking U.S. government shutdown.

Orbital Reflector was conceived by American artist Trevor Paglen through a partnership with the Nevada Museum of Art. The ambitious satellite-based installation was supposed to deploy its angular, self-inflating payload once in orbit and create a sky-high “mirror” that would circle the globe for two months. The diamond-shaped, polyethylene balloon is coated in a titanium dioxide-finish that would have reflected sunlight back down to the Earth at night—a gesture the Nevada Museum of Art hoped would inspire in viewers all over the world “a renewed sense of wonder.”

The satellite carrying Orbital Reflector successfully made it into space on a December 3, 2018, launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 63 other satellites, most of them CubeSats. A CubeSat is sized in standard U units; one “U” is equal to 4-inches-by-4-inches-by-4-inches; the satellite carrying Orbital Reflector is only 3U, about the size of a brick.

Because of the government shutdown, only half of the satellites from that December launch have been able to detach from the rocket and move into independent orbits, as every satellite requires a unique ID number so that it can be tracked. According to an update posted on the project’s Kickstarter page on January 22:

A division of the United States Air Force known as CSpOC (Combined Space Operations Center) is faced with the task of properly identifying each of those satellites so that they can be tracked as they orbit the earth. Six weeks post-launch, that task is still not complete; only half of the satellites from the launch have been properly identified. Many of the satellites that launched together remain in a cluster and until they separate it is difficult to correctly identify each one.

Prior to the holidays, we had been working very closely with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and other relevant space-related authorities to deploy the balloon at the right time for a safe trajectory. The FCC had asked us to wait for their go-ahead before we deploy the balloon. Since the government shutdown began, communication with the FCC has been suspended, as they are not operational at this time.

When the tracking information for Orbital Reflector becomes available, terrestrial art patrons can track the installation via the Star Walk 2 app. The sky-high conceptual piece was supposed to orbit the Earth for two months, completing a rotation around the planet every 94 minutes. It remains to be seen whether the time spent in limbo will eat into that period, or if the satellite will be able to deploy before the orbit of the SpaceX rocket it’s attached to begins to decay.

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