Huge ‘diamond’ sculpture in space could make history

If the purpose of art is to expand our minds, how does that change when the artwork is 350 miles away in low Earth orbit?

That's a question at the heart of Orbital Reflector, a project from artist Trevor Paglen and the Nevada Museum of Art, which will see a 100-foot shiny diamond-shaped sculpture launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base in mid-November.

The reflective, nonfunctional satellite, which will be visible to the naked eye and will orbit the Earth for several weeks before burning up harmlessly in the atmosphere, is meant to provoke wonder and asks viewers to "consider our place in the universe" and "reimagine how we live together" on Earth, according to the project's website.

The actual sculpture will be housed inside of a brick-sized object called a CubeSat and will unfurl and self-inflate like a balloon. Sunlight will reflect off of the sculpture, which is constructed of a material similar to Mylar, making the artwork -- the size of two school buses when it's fully inflated -- visible from Earth.

The artwork could be seen by a very large number of people worldwide.

Design concept rendering for Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector, co-produced and presented by the Nevada Museum of Art.

Design concept rendering for Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector, co-produced and presented by the Nevada Museum of Art. (Trevor Paglen/Nevada Museum of Art)

This isn't the first artwork in space, however.

Almost 50 years ago, a tiny ceramic tile commissioned by Forrest Myers that contained markings from Andy Warhol, David Novros, Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain and Claes Oldenburg was reportedly attached to the Apollo 12 spacecraft and left on the moon along with other personal items belonging to the astronauts. Two years later, the Apollo 15 crew put a sculpture by Paul Van Hoeydonck on the moon to commemorate astronauts killed in the line of duty.

Paglen, a recent MacArthur fellow, began assembling a team of advisors in 2008 that included academics, engineers and others in the aerospace industry, reports PBS. He reached out to the Nevada Museum of Art six years later and they agreed to partner with him.

"For me, it was important to create a kind of catalyst for people to go out and to look at the sky and think about…the politics of space and public space," Paglen told CBS News.

Paglen continued: "I was noticing that there was a kind of military occupation of space that had been in place for a long time. I started to think about how space might be different."

Not everyone in the scientific community loves his idea.

“It’s the space equivalent of someone putting a neon advertising billboard right outside your bedroom window,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Gizmodo.

In response to the criticism from some astronomers in Artnet, Paglen wondered why the hundreds of other weather satellites and rocket bodies launched each year had not drawn the same negative reactions.

"Why are we offended by a sculpture in space, but we’re not offended by nuclear missile targeting devices or mass surveillance devices, or satellites with nuclear engines that have a potential to fall to earth and scatter radioactive waste all over the place?” he asked.

“In my experience, most astronomers have been really excited about the possibility of this project providing the opportunity to share the sense of wonder at looking at the sky,” Paglen told Artnet, noting that he worked closely with astronomers and scientists to develop Orbital Reflector. “If you want to track it, you learn something about how orbits and how the planet works.”