A satellite sculpture achieves orbit, 46P/Wirtanen becomes a naked-eye comet, and Comet C/2018 V1 makes one last good pass.

Space artist
Artist Trevor Paglen created the Orbital Reflector launched on December 3, 2018.
Courtesy of the artist and the NMA

Artist Trevor Paglen wanted to give people a reason to look up. Working with the Nevada Museum of Art, he created the Orbital Reflector, a 98-foot-long sculpture constructed of a lightweight material similar to Mylar. Don't expect to go to a museum to see it — instead you'll literally have to stare 575 kilometers into space to take in the experience.

The artwork launched on Monday, December 3rd, at 10:34 a.m. EST on board the SpaceX Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express. Packed inside a brick-sized CubeSat satellite, the sculpture will self-inflate like a balloon when it reaches low-Earth orbit. Once it assumes its full diamond shape, sunlight reflecting from its metallic skin will make the object shine as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper, or about second magnitude.

Paglen's project is one of some 64 payloads from nearly 50 governments and businesses from 16 countries packed into the ride-share mission. Orbital Reflector is unique in being a purely artistic gesture with no military, scientific or commercial purpose.

Diamond in the sky
The Orbital Reflector is an art installation nearly 100 feet long that will roll out and inflate from a tiny satellite that launched on the SSO-A SmallSat Express mission Monday. 
Courtesy of the artist and the Nevada Museum of Art (NMA)

"I think one of the most important things art can do is give you a reason to look at something," said Paglen. One could easily argue that the stars and planets are reasons enough, but let's keep an open mind. The more reasons to look up, especially for the novice, the better.

The sculpture will inflate into a very elongated, needle-like structure just 4.6 feet (1.4-meter) wide by 98 feet (30-meter) long. In comparison, the International Space Station (ISS) is 356 feet (109 m) long by 240 feet (73 m) wide. To the eye it will look exactly like a moving "star" — exactly like every other satellite — though I suspect its brightness will vary some depending on whether we see it end-on or face-on. What about through a telescope?

CubeSat away!
A CubeSat will be launched from a compartment (brown and gray boxes) on the rocket. Once free of the rocket, the CubeSat will open and the sculpture will roll out and inflate.
Courtesy of the artist and the NMA

It's relatively easy to see the shape of the ISS and its 240-foot-long solar arrays in a telescope magnifying about 50× or higher. Paglen's artwork is a little less than half the length of one of those arrays, so my hunch is it will appear as a very short, thread-like line of light when viewed edge-on as it glides across the sky. Other times, depending on its orientation with respect to an observer on the ground, it will appear as a point. Keeping it in the field of view will be challenging, and you'll need a magnification of around 100×, but it will be well worth the effort if only as a unique way to contemplate a work of art.

I know that some of you reading this believe the last thing we need is another satellite junking up near-Earth space. But consider that the project will be temporary with an approximately 8-month lifetime, much like a traveling art exhibition here on terra firma. Nor will Orbital Reflector be terribly bright.

The satellite was originally supposed to launch this past summer and cross the night sky over North America, but launch delays moved it to December. Unfortunately, it won't be making any passes in a dark sky over the Northern Hemisphere for a while. However, if you live in South America, Australia, or New Zealand, you'll have lots of opportunities for a look as soon as the Orbiter is deployed.

Diamond in orbit
The CubeSat remains attached to the Orbital Reflector as they orbit the Earth in this artist illustration. The satellite will orbit the Earth every 94 minutes.
Courtesy of the artist and the NMA

Due to the sculpture's unusual shape and low mass, satellite-observing expert Dr. Marco Langbroek expects it will remain in orbit for only about 8 months before it burns up in the atmosphere: "This object, being of low mass and large surface once the balloon is inflated, will experience considerable solar radiation pressure (literally, the push of sunlight)," wrote Langbroek in an e-mail.

Light pressure will quickly change its orbit into a loop that will bring the balloon closer and closer to the Earth at perigee until it ultimately burns up in the atmosphere. Langbroek modeled the satellite's evolution once in orbit and predicts that it will re-enter sometime in late July next year, though he cautions that objects with unusual shapes make for tricky predictions. Assuming the Orbital Reflector sticks around long enough, Northern Hemisphere skywatchers will have a go at seeing it before it perishes in a trail of flaring fragments.

Balloon prototype
Artist Trevor Paglen considers an earlier orbiting balloon prototype.
Courtesy of the artist and the NMA

Because Orbital Reflector has yet to be assigned a NORAD ID, we can't track it quite yet. Assuming it successfully deploys, a number will be assigned. For now, you can get updates on Twitter by searching the hashtag #Orbital Reflector and by checking the Nevada Museum of Art's website where they've set up a handy satellite locator (still inactive as of this writing). You can also get viewing times on the free and paid versions of the Star Walk 2 app available for iOS and Android.

Last shot
For one parting look at Comet C/2018 V1 (Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto), find a location with a clear view to the southwest and plan to be out near the end of dusk. The comet cruises some 7°–10° high as twilight fades to night. Stars plotted to magnitude 6.5.
Stellarium with additions by the author

In other observing news, comet observers should be alert to the possibility of seeing Comet C/2018 V1 (Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto) on the outbound leg of its orbit following the comet's December 3rd perihelion. On December 4.0 UT, I suspected it in 10×50 binoculars in Serpens 7° high in the southwestern sky. Had there been no haze or light pollution, I think I would have clinched the observation. Predictions put the comet at around magnitude 7.5 or 8, and it should remain visible low in the southwestern sky near the end of evening twilight. The map above is probably more useful for orientation — feel free to also use this more detailed view which includes stars to magnitude 8 with north up.

Star guide to 46P
Comet 46P/Wirtanen's nightly location is shown through mid-December at 9 p.m. CST, but the comet will still be close to those positions earlier in the evening and later at night. Key bright stars are circled. I’ve also added a couple hints like lining up stars or triangulating from easy, bright stars to the comet. Mira is currently near its maximum brightness at magnitude 4.1.
Stellarium with additions by the author

I got a great view of Comet 46P/Wirtanen along the Cetus–Eridanus border under a rural sky on December 4.1 UT. Even at 23° altitude I glimpsed the now-5th magnitude comet with the naked eye as a faint but obvious smudge of light. Although it appeared soft and diffuse with a brighter center in 10×50 binoculars, the comet possessed an intensity and presence I'd not seen before.

Green ornament comet
Comet 46P/Wirtanen shows a narrow, faint ion tail in this photo taken on December 1, 2018.
Michael Jäger

In my 15-inch scope at low magnification (64×), 46P nearly filled the field of view and its aqua hue was obvious, striking even. At coma center, a small, brighter nuclear condensation about 1′–2′ across was evident and within it the false nucleus, a tiny glitter of 14th magnitude light visible at 357×.

See this gorgeous blob soon — although it lacks a visible tail (at least in my scope at the moment), it's really starting to crank up! I've included my own map but be sure to also check out the Sky & Telescope map here.


Image of Richard


December 5, 2018 at 11:13 am

Oh boy, more unnecessary space junk. Space is not for sculptures and cars; it's for useful spacecraft.

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December 8, 2018 at 8:44 am

Granted, more space crap. But the car is another matter. If the car and "Starman" weren't used as a dummy payload for the Falcon Heavy something else would have been. At times the dummy payloads have been water, steel, or concrete. So if we're going to launch dummy payloads the car is as good as anything, and it certainly captured the public's attention.

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December 5, 2018 at 11:22 am

Bob, thanks for the comet updates in this report. "...the Orbital Reflector, a 98-foot-long sculpture". Okay, artwork in Earth orbit. Sometimes when I view using my telescopes, polar orbiting satellites pass over and flash sunlight into the eyepiece, some bright enough to make be back up and look up thinking it may have been a meteor. Now I have this reflector? I am thinking light pollution 🙂

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Bob King

December 5, 2018 at 11:41 am

True — I think we're all at least a little concerned about light pollution, but this is supposed to max out at mag. 2, so not any more annoying that some surveillance / science satellites. Plus it's quite temporary. It may only last a few months.

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December 5, 2018 at 2:13 pm

Bob, I haven't had a good opportunity to see Comet C/2018 V1 (Machholz-Fujikawa-Iwamoto) since the morning of Nov 12. I tried Sunday evening, but there were some scattered clouds and light pollution in that area of the sky. I was able to locate Wirtanen that same night from Wagman Observatory through my 10 X 50 binoculars, the 5" f/5 Refractor at 25X and the 21" Reflector at 127X at Wagman Observatory. I was surprised when I spotted it from my backyard a couple of hours later through my 10 X 50s. I gave it a rough estimate of 5th magnitude and about 1/2 degree in diameter. Both locations have light pollution in the south. I consider Wirtanen to be a poor version of Comet Holmes in 2007-2008 and IRAS-Araki-Alcock in 1983. Each one featured a large Coma and were easy naked-eye objects. I think Comet I-A-A was 3 million miles or less from the Earth at closest approach and we watched it move without the need of optical aid. I took slides of it as it moved from the ENE to the Western portion of the sky in 3 nights and was gone by the 4th evening. Wow! Comet Holmes Coma was about the same diameter as the Sun. It was a fascinating Comet to watch for several months. I'm still waiting for the next Comet West, Hale-Bopp or Hyakutake.

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Anthony Barreiro

December 5, 2018 at 3:32 pm

Here in Northern California first we had a couple of weeks of thick wildfire smoke, then a series of otherwise welcome rainstorms. Not much chance for skywatching, although I did get to see Juno through binoculars during a break in the weather last Saturday night. I haven't seen Wirtanen yet, and I fear that even if the weather cooperates, urban light pollution will exceed its surface brightness.

Regarding the piece of art launched into orbit, I'm against it. Even if this object is only second magnitude and will burn up in a few months, it's a bad precedent. How long until we have huge permanent orbiting billboards brighter than the full Moon?

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Anthony Barreiro

December 7, 2018 at 5:03 pm

We had remarkably clear weather in San Francisco last night, December 6. From the top of Bernal Hill I saw Comet Wirtanen through 10x42 image-stabilized binoculars around 10 pm PST, when it was culminating. Without the chart in this article I never would have noticed it, but knowing exactly where to look it was a faint and nondescript brightening that faded into the background sky without any clear border. Visually it wasn't terribly exciting, but just knowing that I was looking at a comet gave me a thrill.

I also saw Mars and Neptune lining up, Uranus, Juno, and everybody from Cygnus to Orion. It was a good night, nice to have an excuse to look up.

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December 5, 2018 at 6:54 pm

So we haven't got enough garbage in space and we have to add another, and that 100 ft long for "art's sake"? The sooner this balloon (bubble) bursts the better.

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December 5, 2018 at 10:58 pm

Do you think I can see 46/P in my 15x70s from my home in the suburbs of Chicago?

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Anthony Barreiro

December 6, 2018 at 1:21 pm

There's only one way to find out for sure! Go have a look!

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December 6, 2018 at 12:03 am

46P/Wirtanen, I did view this comet tonight near 2300 EST using 10x50 binoculars and my trusty, 90-mm refractor at 31x and 1.6 degree true FoV. Bob King's comet chart made it easy to locate in Eridanus. The comet was an easy binocular view as well as small telescope view. I viewed from the Patuxent River Valley farms in Maryland. Bob et al, here is some geeky notes from my stargazing log:

"Observed 2230-2300 EST 05-Dec-18. I viewed comet 46P/Wirtanen this evening using 10x50 binoculars and TeleVue 32-mm plossl. This was a large fuzzy coma comet, easy to see using binoculars and the 90-mm refractor. The comet was just SSW of Eta Eri or Azha, mv+3.89 or +3.87, altitude 38 degrees and 205 degrees azimuth near 2325 EST for my location. MS WWT using SIMBAD portal shows stellar parallax 23.89 mas or 136.54 LY distance from earth for the star. Spectral class K1+IIIb. While observing the comet, a couple of early Geminid meteors flashed by in Taurus estimate mv +1.0. Castor is up in Gemini 50 degrees altitude and 85 degrees azimuth so the radiant is up high when I viewed 46P/Wirtanen. Some early Geminids meteors are predicted for this week."

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Rusty Moore

December 6, 2018 at 10:27 am

This is an interesting piece from the June 2016 issue of The Atlantic which features Trevor Paglen.

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Alain Maury

December 6, 2018 at 4:21 pm

It's a shame people let launch whatever crap in the sky. We don't care about his "art". Who paid for that stupidity ? On the other hand every launch gets us closer from a Kessler syndrome, I hope all this stuff up there starts colliding, and grinds itself to very tiny parts so that we don't have long exposures wasted by one of these useless things. Why do humans turn everything they touch into a mess ? The vast majority of the stuff up there is useless, and whatever is in use, should not be launched without having a mean to de-orbit it, paid by the owner of the satellite, this is the only ecological way to send something in space, making sure it won't stay there for eternity. The first step in a war between one of the big nations will be the destruction of all military satellites, leading immediately to Kessler's syndrome, and long after that war, humanity won't be able to go to space anymore. I mean is there is any humanity left. For that reason only, military activity in space should be prohibited by international treaties as well. My first space debris meeting was in 1992, and people were quite aware that there was a big problem, but haven't done anything in order to solve it. So, the phrase "every problem gets a solution, even a bad one" has to be the way it's going to be. It's very impressive (and sad in a way) to be in the polar regions, watching the sky at night and seeing dozens of satellites at the same time. So it's bound to happen. Other than that, yes, Wirtanen, easily visible to the naked eye.

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Bill -Simpson

December 7, 2018 at 2:55 am

I've got a comet question. Why do the photographs of Comet Hale Bopp never show the shock fronts which were clearly seen through a large telescope? I viewed it from suburban New Orleans through a 20 inch Obsession, and the 2 or 3 shocks in front of the body of the comet were easily visible, and quite amazing to see. Yet of all the images I've seen of the comet, none show the shock fronts, compression waves, or whatever they are officially called. The parabolic waves were the coolest thing about the comet. I wonder if only large comets make ones that are easily seen.

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Len Philpot

December 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm

Just what we need... vacuous 'art' in space. 🙁 I agree, it may be temporary but it's an absolutely terrible precedent. What's next? Giant mirrors in geosynchronous orbit? Just because Elon Musk can and there's no one to stop him?

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December 7, 2018 at 9:31 pm

As an astronomer married to an artist, I can only quote Kipling:

"When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: "It's pretty,
...but is it Art?"

Get thee behind me, Philistines ..,one can appreciat the melding of both the science and the Art! 🙂


“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

― Robert A. Heinlein

Happy Holidays!

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Anthony Barreiro

December 10, 2018 at 5:44 pm

After reading Kipling's quatrain, I guess I'm the Devil's Advocate.

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December 19, 2018 at 5:09 pm

Some say 'space junk' some say 'art'.. Shouldn't we be discussing the proliferation of nano satellites?

Saw 46P five nights in a row. The first night was the best, the rest hazy/murky views. My 15x70 binos had the best views.. my 12.5 f3.6 not so great. Seeing was mediocre to poor.. but I got to visually see my 56th Comet!

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December 19, 2018 at 5:13 pm

Hopes for a hole in the clouds to see it again! My Christmas present?

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