Artists + Scientists

Artists and scientists are both engaged in inquiry. For centuries, artists have accompanied explorers and scientists on their journeys to help visualize places for those who have not traveled there. But the exploration extends far beyond fieldwork, into the realm of imagination and new possibility.

Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich was the first artist to imagine art in space. Others followed, designing self-propelled rockets that were never launched. While Malevich’s artistic vision was never realized, the Soviet Union sent Sputnik 1 — the first artificial Earth satellite — into orbit in 1957. NASA followed with Explorer 1 in 1958 and Echo in 1960. The midcentury Space Race was on, with the threat of Cold War conflict always lingering in its shadows.

Today, we again find an artist — Trevor Paglen — at the center of our global conversations about what space exploration and discovery could mean for our future.


Kazimir Malevich, Planits, 1923-24

Art History

Russian avant-garde artist Kasimir Malevich was the first to imagine art in space. His inhabitable floating structures—referred to as Planits--were experiments in Suprematist architecture. Working during a time of revolution, his notion of “orbital” art was inextricably linked to the pursuit of freedom. In the introduction to the 1920 artist book: Suprematism: 34 Drawings, Malevich dubbed the word “sputnik” to designate the artificial satellites he imagined creating around the earth.

Soviet Union, Sputnik, 1957

Art History

The Soviet Union sent Sputnik 1—the first artificial earth satellite—into orbit in 1957. It was a 58-inch polished sphere with radio antennae. The success of the launch triggered the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States, and is considered part of the Cold War between the two nations.

Yves Klein, Pneumatic Rocket, 1958

Art History

French artist Yves Klein was a visionary who envisioned a new course for art and a utopian path for society. Klein designed a series of "air architecture" projects, including self-propelled, air-driven projectiles that were intended to launch from Earth and never return. Part of Klein’s research into technology and architectural space resulted from his radical vision of an evolving society.

NASA, ECHO1 & ECHO 2, 1960s

Art History

These 100-feet-diameter spherical spacecraft, developed by NASA in the 1960s, served as early communications satellites by reflecting radio signals off of their mirrorized skins. Communication signals were bounced off them from one point on Earth to another.

Limit Telephotography (2005 - 2013)

Artist's Works

The United States operates hundreds of classified military bases and installations in remote parts of the United States. Often they are located deep in the deserts of the American West or buffered by restricted property that is off limits to the general public. Paglen uses limit-telephotography to photograph these places that cannot be seen with the unaided eye. The final images are often blurry and sometimes appear abstract. Paglen's technique is astrophotography that astronomers use to photograph objects trillions of miles from Earth.

The Other Night Sky (2007 - 2015)

Artist's Works

The Other Night Sky is a project developed by Paglen to track and photograph objects that do not naturally occur in space, such as satellites and other orbital debris. Paglen uses data produced by amateur satellite observers to calculate when and where these things will be visible in the night sky. Paglen uses telescopes, large-format cameras, and other imaging devices to document these anomalies in the night sky

Symbology (2007 - 2013)

Artist's Works

For decades, the United States military has designed embroidered patches to symbolize and commemorate everything from unit affiliations and significant events, to secret missions and noteworthy programs. Paglen collects these patches, records their symbols and insignia, and asks: "How does one represent that which, by definition, must not be represented?" As a nod to the history of "mission patches," and as part of his totemic visual language of military culture, Paglen created a series of patches for Orbital Reflector.

Artifacts (2010)

Artist's Works

What will be the artifacts and remnants of human civilization many thousands of years into the future? Paglen asks this question in a series of photographs that juxtapose ancient indigenous sites alongside images revealing remnant satellites in outer space. The jarring combination of ancient and future encourages viewers to consider what future civilizations will extrapolate from these artifacts about us once we no longer exist.

They Watch the Moon (2010)

Artist's Works

By photographing locations from which the American government’s covert intelligence agencies operate, Paglen illustrates his ongoing exploration of the culture of secrecy shrouding empowered institutions.

Paglen reveals sites of unknown activity in the United States, where covert military and intelligence agencies operate. This image of Sugar Grove Station, a National Security Agency in West Virginia, reveals the place where communication satellites detect and record all international communications and data entering the eastern United States

The Last Pictures (2012)

Artist's Works

What images define human civilization and what would they reveal about us if they were discovered by long into the future? In 2012, Paglen worked with the public arts organization Creative Time and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a micro-etched disc containing his selection of one hundred photographs from across human history that Paglen calls "The Last Pictures.". The disc was encased in a gold-plated shell, designed to withstand the rigors of space and to last for billions of years. It was affixed to a massive communications satellite and launched into geosynchronous orbit, where it remains today. While working on this project, Paglen imagined designing and building his own satellite, which led to his proposal for Orbital Reflector.

Cable Landing Sites (2014 - 2016)

Artist's Works

The activities taking place beneath the ocean's surface are often unknown. Paglen photographs beautiful seascapes and displays them alongside collaged maritime maps showing the location of telecommunications networks and underwater cables. These seemingly-benign photographs reveal some of the National Security Agency's most controversial surveillance activities.

Preliminary Design Review

Project Milestones

After engaging the aerospace firm Global Western to fabricate Orbital Reflector, the artist, Museum team, and technical project manager met in southern California at Kelly Space Systems and Technologies to review the proposed scope of work, and to analyze early engineering designs. During this review, a determination was made to shift from a spherical balloon sculpture to a diamond-shaped object, which would be more reflective and remain in orbit longer.

Critical Design Review

Project Milestones

The Orbital Reflector team, including the artist and engineers, convened at the Nevada Museum of Art to review the proposed CubeSat design, balloon construction process, and engineering software and radio systems, and to review the results of satellite prototyping and testing. After all designs were approved and the prototype was analyzed, the engineers proceeded with satellite fabrication.

Balloon Construction

Project Milestones

Balloon construction took place in a large warehouse facility near Ventura, California. Constructed of a thin plastic material called polyethylene coated with titanium dioxide, each section of the balloon was meticulously cut to specification, and heat-sealed at varying intervals. Then, each section was inspected, inch by inch, to ensure perfection. The final dimensions for the diamond-shaped balloon were 100-feet long by 5 feet wide.

CubeSat Fabrication

Project Milestones

CubeSat (U-class spacecraft) is a type of miniaturized satellite often used for space research. The Orbital Reflector CubeSat is a small, brick shaped steel and aluminum box that houses the sculpture. The "box" was fabricated near Denver, Colorado, using a CNC cutting machine.

Dynamics and Acceptance Testing

Project Milestones

Two complete flight units and a qualification unit were fabricated. The completed units underwent a series of shake, vibration, and thermal vacuum tests to prove that the satellite could withstand a launch, as well as the space environment. The tests included recording a series of electrical readings at various frequencies. After each test, the balloon was inspected.

CubeSat Integration

Project Milestones

Our CubeSat is one of many secondary payloads that will launch upon the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The multiple payloads ride on what Spaceflight Inc. calls a SHERPA. The engineering team travelled to Seattle, Washington to integrate the CubeSat into the SHERPA. The integration facility is operated by Spaceflight Inc., the company that the team worked with to secure the rocket launch.