Thanks to Government Shutdown, the Galaxy’s First Art Satellite Stalls in Outer Space

Trevor Paglen, “Orbital Reflector” (2018). Digital rendering (copyright Trevor Paglen, courtesy the artist and Nevada Museum of Art)

It’s day 34 of the government shutdown. 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed so long that some have taken on shifts as Uber drivers while others have resorted to food stamps. Over the last month, government employees have lost an estimated $4.8 billion; the American economy’s damages exceed $5.7 billion. The country’s cultural institutions have also taken a hit — both the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art have now been closed for over 20 days. The Gallery’s major Rachel Whiteread exhibition closed to an empty crowd; a Pennsylvania exhibition celebrating the women’s suffrage centennial is jeopardized; and a major Tintoretto show in Washington DC also faces cancellation.

The federal government’s partial shutdown has sent ripples across the planet — and beyond. Somewhere within Earth’s orbit miles away from America, artist Trevor Paglen’s ambitious “Orbital Reflector” satellite sculpture awaits half-completed in the vacuum of space.

Launched with a cluster of 64 satellites more than a month ago, “Orbital Reflector” remains undeployed aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. That’s because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is partially responsible for safely deploying satellites into space, has suspended its operations during the shutdown.

The largest satellite launch in American history now swirls around the planet unfulfilled and waiting. Without a green light from the FCC, Paglen’s 100-foot-long, diamond-shaped polyethylene balloon will remain deflated and tethered to the other satellites. Originally, the sculpture was supposed to reach a low orbit of about 360 miles above Earth’s surface before inflating, allowing its titanium dioxide surface to reflect the sun’s rays back to Earth, even during nighttime. The piece was to remain in the sky for approximately two months after its launch. With the clock running out of time, it’s unclear how long the “Orbital Reflect” will be fully operational.

A division of the United States Air Force known as CSpOC is tasked with properly identifying satellites so they can be tracked as they orbit Earth. That task remains incomplete today with only half of the “Orbital Reflector’s” cluster being identified. Because of the shutdown, it is unclear when the NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) ID number will become available for monitoring.

“Sky watchers across the globe remain anxious to see Orbital Reflector in the night sky,” notes the Nevada Museum of Art, a partner on the project. “The team is hopeful that the satellite can withstand the wait during the unforeseen government shutdown. Time will tell.”

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