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Space
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Asgardia Space News
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Asgardia Space News

98-Foot-Long Sculpture Dubbed the Orbital Reflector Launches into Space

Artist Trevor Paglen in partnership with the Nevada Museum of Art has created the Orbital Reflector, a 98-foot-long sculpture made of a lightweight material similar to Mylar. However, you won’t be able to see it at the museum— instead, you’ll have to stare 575 kilometres into space.

The artwork was launched on December 3rd, at 10:34 a.m. EST aboard the SpaceX Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express. It was held inside a CubeSat satellite the size of a brick and once it reaches low-Earth orbit, the sculpture will self-inflate like a balloon. Once it’s inflated into its full diamond shape, sunlight reflecting from its metallic skin will make the object shine as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper, approximately second magnitude.

Paglen’s project is one of about 64 payloads from almost 50 governments and businesses in 16 countries packed into the rideshare mission. However, the Orbital Reflector is the only purely artistic gesture with no military, scientific, or commercial purpose.

The sculpture will inflate into a very elongated structure resembling a needle. It will measure 4.6 feet (1.4-meter) wide by 98 feet (30-meter) long. For comparison, the International Space Station (ISS) is 356 feet (109 m) long by 240 feet (73 m) wide. To the naked eye, it will appear exactly like a moving “star.” However, its brightness will vary depending on whether we see it end-on or face-on.

But, what about viewing it through a telescope?

With a telescope that magnifies about 50X times or higher, you can see the outline of the ISS and its 240-foot-long solar arrays. Thus, Paglen’s artwork, which is a little less than half the length of one of those arrays, should appear as a very short, thread-like line of light when viewed edge-on as it floats across the sky.

However, depending on its orientation concerning an observer on the ground, it could look like a point. One challenge will be keeping it in the field of view, and you’ll need a magnification of around 100×, but it will be well worth the effort to contemplate this unique piece of art.

For those who are worried about space junk, the project is only temporary with about an 8-month lifespan. It’s also not bright enough to cause light pollution.

The satellite was set to launch this past summer and travel through the night sky over North America. However, launch delays pushed it to December. Sadly, it won’t be passing through the Northern Hemisphere for a while. But, if you live in South America, Australia, or New Zealand, you’ll have lots of chances to catch a glimpse as soon as the Orbiter is deployed.

Dr. Marco Langbroek, a satellite-observing expert, explained that he believes the art project will remain in orbit for about eight months before it burns up in the atmosphere as a result of the sculpture’s unusual shape and low mass.

Light pressure will rapidly change its orbit into a loop that will bring the balloon closer and closer to the Earth at perigee until it ends up burning up in the atmosphere. Langbroek modelled the satellite’s evolution once in orbit and predicted that it would re-enter sometime in late July 2019, although he warns that objects with unusual shapes can be difficult to predict accurately.

If the Orbital Reflector does last for eight months those living in the Northern Hemisphere will have a chance to see it before it’s over.

Since the Orbital Reflector does not have a NORAD ID yet, it isn’t quite trackable. But, if it launches and unfolds successfully, a number will be assigned. For now, you can get updates on Twitter by searching the hashtag #Orbital Reflector and by checking the Nevada Museum of Art’s website where they’ve set up a handy satellite locator. You can also obtain viewing times on the free and paid versions of the Star Walk 2 app available for both iOS and Android.