Let’s Get Pissed Off About Orbital Reflector…

It seems that Orbital Reflector has ruffled some feathers… Good!

Orbital Reflector was designed as a provocation. An opportunity to think about outer space, the geopolitics of the heavens, and the militarization of earth orbits. It’s a project about public space, and a project about who gets to exercise power over our planetary commons, and on what terms.

I started thinking about Orbital Reflector in the mid-2000s, and started assembling a team to realize it beginning in 2008. Eight years later, the Nevada Museum of Art partnered with me to make the project a reality. Orbital Reflector emerged from a period where I was spending a lot of time looking at the night sky and thinking about space. Nearly every evening I went out on the roof of my apartment with telescopes and computers, teaching myself how to track and photograph secret satellites in classified orbits. There are hundreds of these “black” spacecraft, mostly operated by the American military to conduct optical and electronic surveillance, coordinate military activities, and to enable navigation and targeting for military aircraft, cruise missiles, drones, and nuclear weapons. The more time you spend looking at how outer space actually works, the more you come to understand that space has become the domain of the world’s most powerful militaries — a platform for surveillance and warfare.

It’s naïve to think that space was ever about much more than creating planetary weapons systems. The first spacefaring vehicles — Nazi V-2 rockets — were designed for mass murder. After the war, the US and Soviet Union famously imported German rocket scientists to develop their own generation of rockets. The launch vehicles that put the first satellites in orbit weren’t designed to explore the universe; they were designed to deliver nuclear weapons. In a very real sense, spaceflight is a byproduct of global war. But some of the outlines began to change with the new millennium.

Over several years observing satellites, I began to notice that the weaponization of space was entering a new phase. Nuclear weapons and strategic reconnaissance were still very much a part of it, but warfare in space itself seemed poised to get a lot more active. The American military in particular was taking a much more aggressive stance towards the domination of orbital space. It began in 2001 when the US pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and continued in 2004, when the US Air Force articulated a policy of “Offensive Counterspace Operations…” designed to target an “adversary’s space capability… using a variety of permanent and/or reversable means.”¹ In 2006, the US cast the single dissenting vote against a UN General Assembly resolution prohibiting all weapons in space. As the new millennium developed, the United States continued to veer away from international conventions about the use of space, developing much more aggressive attitudes towards operations in space.

This new era in the weaponization of space isn’t just a collection of policies. It involves new weapons, new spacecraft, and new mission profiles. In 2005, the US launched a spacecraft called XSS-11 (Experimental Satellite System-11), a small satellite designed to intercept other satellites in low-earth-orbit. The following year, a pair of satellites called MiTEx (Micro-Satellite Technology Experiment) were deployed to geostationary orbit. Like XSS-11, these were interceptors designed to surreptitiously inspect (and potentially covertly attack) other satellites.² Early 2007 saw China demonstrate its own anti-satellite weapons, shooting down one of its own Fengyun weather satellites and creating over 2,000 pieces of trackable debris. The US responded in turn by shooting down one of its own failing military satellites, USA-193. Since then, there’s been a new and largely secret space-race between China, Russia, and the United States to develop overt and covert anti-satellite capabilities and assert dominance over the heavens.

This is the context that Orbital Reflector emerged from. In my work as an artist I’m always trying to find ways that allow us to see forms of power and infrastructure that we otherwise blindly accept as given fact. One method for doing that is to stage a provocation. The stated goal of Orbital Reflector (and the series of “nonfunctional satellite” sculptures I began exhibiting in 2012) has always been to create a satellite that has no military, commercial, or scientific function. A satellite whose only purpose is to reflect sunlight in the night sky and to harmlessly disintegrate in the upper atmosphere after a few months. In other words, Orbital Reflector was designed to be the opposite of every other satellite that’s ever been built.³ In doing so, my intention has been to bring some awareness about how profoundly compromised space has become by the world’s militaries and corporations.

I want people to ask questions about the legitimate uses of space. I want people to think about who should have the right to put what into space, and to what ends. I want people to ask why the secret USA-276 satellite was buzzing the International Space Station last year. And I want to ask why the fuck anybody at all is ok with Elon Musk sending a Tesla-shaped advertisement out towards the asteroid belt.

So let’s get pissed off about Orbital Reflector, and then let’s get pissed off about Russia’s Object 2014–28E, the US’ X-37B, and the weaponization and privatization of space… And then let’s look back down at earth and spend some time thinking about how to create the world we want.

And if we can do that, I’ll call Orbital Reflector’s two-month mission a resounding success.


[1] “Counterspace Operations.” Air Force Doctrine Document 2–2.1. August 2, 2004. Available here from the Federation of American Scientists.

[2] I wrote an article about all of this at the time. Entitled “What Greg Roberts Saw,” it goes into a lot more detail about the politics of these spacecraft. See Paglen, Trevor “What Greg Roberts Saw: Visuality, Intelligibility, and Sovereignty — 36,000 km over the Equator” in Mirzoeff, N. (ed.) The Visual Culture Reader, London: Routledge, 2013.

[3] A few commentators have imagined that light reflected from OR could interfere with astronomic observations. For numerous reasons, this is incredibly unlikely. First of all, the likelihood of OR passing through the field of view during an optical astronomical observation is infinitesimally small. Secondly, few astronomical observations are even conducted by single-point optical telescopes anymore. Third, OR has a very short lifespan. (With tens of thousands of pieces of space-debris currently in orbit, anyone doing optical astronomy or photography — myself included — is already very acquainted with mitigation techniques). Another critique of OR is that I’m putting “useless” things into space. To that charge, I plead guilty. I think public art is a good thing. The “uselessness” of public art doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes it worthwhile.

Orbital Reflector is co-produced with the Nevada Museum of Art.
It is scheduled to launch in November 2018

I’m an artist who spends time thinking about everything from cave painting to computer vision.