A rendering of Trevor Paglen's Orbital Reflector. Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art

Government shutdown hits Trevor Paglen’s space art

US government institutions closure means that although Paglen’s Orbital Reflector is in space we can’t track it

While the US government shutdown has caused plenty of far more consequential problems down on earth, it’s also messed up a few well-laid plans just above our planet’s atmosphere.

After a series of delays the American artist Trevor Paglen managed to launch his orbiting, satellite space sculpture, called Orbital Reflector, back at the beginning of December.

Unlike other satellites, Paglen’s work “has no military, scientific or commercial value,” he explains, “and therefore represents the opposite of every other space programme.”

He knows that his bit of space art will not carry our TV programmes and telephone calls, guide the GPS in our phones,nor aid our armed forces and financial markets as other satellites do; instead he hopes that it will make us think about all those other functions. “After all,” he writes, “they happen up there in outer space - out of sight, out of mind.”  

Unfortunately, Orbital Reflector has now drawn our attention towards one fairly well covered aspect of contemporary politics.


Paglen Reflector


The Nevada Museum of Art, which commissioned the work, released an update yesterday via Orbital Reflector’s Kickstarter page, explaining why we still can’t see the satellite.

“This launch was the largest satellite launch in US history,” explains the text. “A division of the United States Air Force known as CSpOC is faced with the task of properly identifying each of those satellites so that they can be tracked as they orbit the earth.

“Six weeks post-launch, that task is still not complete; only half of the satellites from the launch have been properly identified. Many of the satellites that launched together remain in a cluster and until they separate it is difficult to correctly identify each one. With the government shutdown, we have no indication of how much longer it will take until the NORAD ID number becomes available.”

What’s more, Orbital Reflector’s balloon remains uninflated, due to the governmental impasse.


Trevor Paglen. Image courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Trevor Paglen. Image courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

“Prior to the holidays, we had been working very closely with the FCC and other relevant space-related authorities to deploy the balloon at the right time for a safe trajectory. The FCC had asked us to wait for their go-ahead before we deploy the balloon. Since the government shutdown began, communication with the FCC has been suspended, as they are not operational at this time.

“Of course, we want to ensure the safest possible mission both for Orbital Reflector but also for our neighbors in space (including the ISS!).  As Trevor Paglen has stated, ‘Space is hard!’”


Trevor Paglen
Trevor Paglen

Indeed it is, but not when Paglen's work in relation to it is expressed so clearly as it is in our book on the artist  For more on Paglen’s space and tech themed work, buy a copy of our Contemporary Artist Series book on the artist; andto see more of the heavens, in all their glory, take a look at Sun and Moon.