Originally the term space debris referred to the natural debris found in the Solar System such as asteroids, comets and meteors but now that term also includes manmade articles like satellites and spent rocket stages. NASA estimates that this debris field has more than 500,000 pieces ranging from marble-sized to much larger and is a collision concern to the orbiting international space station. To avoid collisions with the International Space Station or other spacecraft, the US Space Surveillance Network tracks all debris larger than 10 centimeters.
In late October another piece will be joining the field in the name of art. Yep, you have read that correctly. Artist Trevor Paglen plans to send a 100-foot, diamond-shaped balloon into space for no other reason than his creativity and making people look up skyward. (I don’t know about you but I already look up to heavens, to actually look at, well, the heavens.) It does not have any functional reason beyond that.
Trevor Paglen is an American artist, geographer, and author whose works have focused on data collection and mass surveillance. He has collaborated with scientists and human rights activists on multimedia projects and has photographed a number of secret government sites. He holds a slew of degrees including a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley, an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in Geography from U.C. Berkeley. He also won the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017.
Orbital Reflector, made of a polyethylene material coated with titanium dioxide, is a football field sized piece and is going to be placed in low orbit some 575 kilometres from the Earth. Its shiny surface will reflect sunlight making it viewable from Earth with the naked eye. This sculpture is predicted to be as bright as one of the stars in the Big Dipper. The artist’s project overview states, “Orbital Reflector encourages all of us to look up at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder, to consider our place in the universe, and to reimagine how we live together on this planet.” Three months after its installation, this sculpture will fall back to earth and burn up on reentry.
Interestingly enough, this is not the first piece of space art to be put into orbit this year. In January, a space startup company named Rocket Lab launched a three-foot wide mirrored ball resembling a disco ball. This ball entitled, Humanity Star is supposed to remind us that we humans are merely tiny specks in a huge universe. (I kind of knew that one already but okay.) We can hope that this sculpture will also have a limited engagement.
Astronomers are concerned that another piece of space junk will hinder their view of the cosmos for no good reason but the artist says that it would be incredibly unlikely that this sculpture will block an astronomer’s telescope at the exact moment that they would be making a huge discovery.
I have discussed other unique art exhibitions before but I have to ask myself sometimes, why? I understand that artists want to make people think but, personally, what I think is why add to the mess? It is like adding a huge statue made of plastic to a dump. Will this really raise awareness in those that see it or will it just get lost in the refuse? But hey, what do I know? I am only a small time science blogger and these opinions are mine alone. (Or are they?)
Here is an artist’s rendering of the junk orbiting the Earth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_3598026871&feature=iv&src_vid=wPXCk85wMSQ&v=O64KM4GuRPk
Photo Source: NASA, artist’s rendering of the Earth and space debris; Trevor Paglen, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency