Prototypes for a Non-functional Satellite

Summer 2013 | Work done for Trevor Paglen

Summer 2013 I had the opportunity to work with Trevor Paglen, an artist whose work revolves around surveillance and, recently, outer space. Non-functional Satellites is a project that recasts aerospace engineering without its dominant corporate and military interests.

I adapted a design for a inflatable, spherical satellite to CubeSat specifications, and developed further satellite concepts in dialogue with the history of space travel. The balloon satellites in the photo above are mockups of a sculptural satellite to be placed into low-earth orbit. Once in orbit, the highly-reflective balloons are designed to be visible to the unaided eye and to have a lifespan of several months. The CubeSat program allows small satellites, usually of dimensions 10cm x 10cm x 10cm, 10cm x 10cm x 20cm, etc. to be piggy-backed into orbit on commercial rocket launches. This significantly reduces the cost to put a satellite into space.

My design challenge was this: how large a balloon can you fit into a 10cm x 10cm x 30cm enclosure, and how do you have to fold everything to make it work?

After sketching and playing with mylar sheets, I arrived at a pattern mimicking the contruction of a globe. NASA's archived report on the deployment of the satellite PAGEOS confirmed that a pleat pattern followed by an accordion fold was optimal for storage, and for easy deployment.

CubeSat specifications forbid explosives or compressed gas, and so necessitate deployment by spring-loaded piston or similar. Once the balloon has been ejected from the SubeSat chassis, it must be inflated. One mechanism for this, taken from the PAGEOS report, involves an inner dusting of benzoic acid and anthraquinone powders which sublimate in the heat and vacuum of space. This powder also keeps the mylar from sticking and potentially ripping.