STSS-1 and two unidentified spacecraft over Carson City (2010) by Trevor Paglen, as reproduced in Universe

How Trevor Paglen saw the night sky

The MacArthur Fellow is less interested in space's beauty - more in the sinister man-made objects in our heavens

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced yesterday that the US-born, Berlin-based artist and geographer Trevor Paglen would be among its 2017 fellows, receiving one of its $625,000, no-strings-attached awards, which the foundation says go to "extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential." Not for nothing is it commonly referred to as the genius award.

What sets Paglen apart? Well, as the foundation puts it, it is the way he documents "the hidden operations of covert government projects and examines the ways that human rights are threatened in an era of mass surveillance."

Consider this image, included in our new book Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World. Plenty of photographers have taken similar, long-exposure pictures of the heavens. Fewer have focussed on the secretive satellites that orbit above us, such as those that make up the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, a new celestial monitoring operation which the USA hopes to use to detect inter continental ballistic missiles. Here's how Universe describes this shot.

"Paglen, the American artist who took this long-exposure photograph of the night sky above Carson City, Nevada, in 2010, is less interested in the beauty of the star trails he captures than in the role of the two unidentified spacecraft inserted among them – a third is identified by Paglen as part of the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS). Although all three are almost impossible for the uninitiated to find, they cut across the concentric rings, two in a code of dots and dashes and one as an unbroken streak pointing towards the north celestial pole around which the stars appear to move. 


Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World
Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World

"Paglen’s technique – a long-exposure, wide-angle photograph of the night sky – is far from unique, but his fascination with surveillance of Earth from space gives additional meaning to his image. Many artificial satellites have scientific, meteorological or communications functions, but the artist is more interested in those that have no stated public purpose. The circular motion of the stars is an illusion caused by the Earth spinning in space, with the camera pointing along its axis of rotation. The shortest, brightest star trail belongs to Polaris, the North Star – but the brilliant red sky is Paglen’s own invention, suggestive more of a sinister atmosphere of surveillance than of anything to be seen in the night sky."

Check back soon for news of our Trevor Paglen monograph, and for more cosmic images by such varied star gazers as NASA, Picasso, DC Comics and Gerhard Richter order a copy of Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World here.