The Government Shutdown Killed an Artist’s Space Sculpture

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Last December, SpaceX set a company record when it delivered a staggering 64 small satellites to space aboard a single Falcon 9 rocket. Included in this orbital “clown car” was the Orbital Reflector, a satellite designed by artist Trevor Paglen to deploy a massive, inflatable balloon coated with a reflective paint once it was in orbit. The idea was to turn the sky into a cosmic art gallery for a few months by allowing Earthlings to ponder the light reflected by the balloon as it passed overhead.

Paglen’s space sculpture was both praised for its creativity and maligned by astronomers, who grumbled about the art project disrupting observations. The astro community’s hand wringing about the responsible use of outer space turned out to be for nothing, however. As detailed in a press release released on Wednesday by the Nevada Museum of Art, which partnered with Paglen to create the Orbital Reflector, the government shutdown killed the project.

Eighteen days after Orbital Reflector was deployed into orbit, US President Donald Trump initiated what would become the longest government shutdown in the country’s history. For just over a month, 800,000 federal employees ranging from NASA scientists to air traffic controllers were on full or partial leave. This left many federal agencies scrambling to fulfill their duties, while others, like the Federal Communications Commission, shuttered almost all of their operations.

Although the FCC is perhaps best known for its part in killing net neutrality, it also plays a central role in determining what happens in orbit. Any organization that wants to send a satellite into space must first get a license with the FCC, which dictates how the satellite can communicate with Earth and vice versa. In the case of Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, the FCC ultimately had the final say in when the satellite could deploy its balloon to ensure that it didn’t interfere with other satellites.

According to the release put out by the Nevada Museum of Art, after the satellite was deployed it successfully established communication with ground stations on Earth, but the sheer number of satellites being deployed meant the Air Force was “unable to distinguish between [the satellites] and could not assign tracking numbers to many of them.” Without a NORAD tracking ID, the FCC wouldn’t give the OK to Paglen’s team to deploy the reflective balloon contained in the satellite.

Six weeks after the launch, the Air Force had only identified about half of the satellites. But even if they had identified Paglen’s satellite, it’s uncertain it would have helped. As detailed in a mid-January status report from the Nevada Museum of Art, there was no communication between Paglen’s team and the FCC, which had furloughed most of its employees.

Paglen’s team was able to maintain communication with the satellite for sometime after it was placed in orbit, but its electronics weren’t designed to function for weeks. As the government shutdown wore on, signals from the satellite became more infrequent. By the time the shutdown ended on January 22, Orbital Reflector had gone silent. WIRED has reached out to the FCC and US Air Force for further details on what went wrong and will update this post if we hear back.

Some astronomers undoubtedly felt a bit of schadenfreude when they learned that the balloon wouldn’t deploy, but in many ways Paglen’s project still managed to convey its message. As Paglen told WIRED when Timothy Sohn visited the lab building the satellite, Orbital Reflector was meant to make people think about space as a public commons and question what it means to have ownership of the final frontier. By blocking the balloon’s inflation, the US government sent a strong reminder that while space may be a truly universal commons, it’s still subject to terrestrial gatekeeping.

It’s uncertain whether Paglen will make another attempt at placing another sculpture into orbit, but given this art project’s $1.5 million price tag, that’s a big ask. WIRED has reached out to the artist about his future plans and will update this article with his comments if we hear back.


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