An Unseen Star

Orbital Reflector (OR) launched from Vandenberg Air Force base onboard a Space-X Falcon 9 rocket on December 3, 2018. The spacecraft/sculpture had a simple purpose: from an initial payload about the size of a shoebox, it was to unfurl and inflate a large, reflective, diamond-shaped structure designed to catch sunlight and reflect it down to earth. In the pre-dawn and twilight, OR would appear to the unaided eye as a slowly moving ‘star’ in the sky. But the spacecraft had another, even more important purpose. Orbital Reflector was conceived and developed against a backdrop of the increasing militarization and weaponization of orbital space. It was meant to highlight the politics of space, and to question who has the right to do what with our shared resources and environments. As a spacecraft whose mission had no nationalistic or commercial aims, OR was intended to be the opposite of every other spacecraft.

In the days after launch, the OR ground team stayed in regular contact with our spacecraft, checking out it’s subsystems, monitoring its temperature and position. When OR separated from the rocket, it was deployed within a cluster of other similarly sized spacecraft. Our plan was to wait a length of time before inflating the large reflective structure to mitigate against the risk of colliding with other spacecraft deployed from the same rocket. It would take a few weeks for OR to drift far enough away from other objects to be able to deploy, and would require approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to complete the process. The electronics and hardware onboard OR were designed to function during this time but weren’t hardened for long-term functionality.

The ground team continued monitoring OR, waiting for the satellites from the rocket launch to spread out sufficiently for us to safely inflate the reflective structure. Then something totally unexpected happened: the Trump administration shut down the US government in an attempt to extract congressional funding for a wall along the US/Mexico border. We continued communication with OR but good signals were becoming less frequent. OR was dying. We needed to coordinate with the FCC to deploy the reflector, but there was no one to take our calls: there was no government. Pings from OR became less frequent. By the time the government re-opened 35 days later, the spacecraft had gone completely silent.

If the project’s goal was to provoke a conversation about the politics of space, it has been nothing less than a stellar success. And the story of OR has become an embodiment of those politics: the Trump administration’s insistence on building a wall between the United States and Mexico led to the demise of a spacecraft whose purpose was to questions these very kinds of politics.

I don’t know whether OR will ever deploy and inflate its reflective structure. It might, it might not. Ironically perhaps, the best chance of Orbital Reflector’s reflector deploying may come from a second system failure. If the spacecraft further degrades, any number of damaged components might inadvertently trigger the inflation sequence without warning. With this being the state of affairs, I think of Orbital Reflector’s current state as being in a state of unknown possibility, like an unopened present circling through the night sky. And I, for one, will keep my eyes on the stars, knowing that at any moment, a new one might spring to life.