Rocket Lab’s Humanity Star: Astronomers Up In Arms Over ‘Disco Ball’ Satellite’s Secret Launch

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Rocket Lab might not be as well-known as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, but the private spaceflight company has gained a lot of notoriety over the past few days following the secret launch of its Humanity Star satellite earlier this week. While the so-called “disco ball” satellite’s launch was intended as a way to promote unity in the world, a number of scientists were less than impressed by what they referred to as a form of vandalism, or “space graffiti,” as one scientist put it.

An “art installation-as-satellite,” as described by the Washington Post, the Humanity Star was launched on Thursday together with three commercial satellites and will remain in space as it circles Earth for the next nine months before its orbit decays and the satellite disintegrates while entering Earth’s atmosphere. According to Rocket Lab, the satellite is best viewed at dawn or dusk, where it is expected to shine like a “bright flashing shooting star” visible to people around the world.

“Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect,” read a statement from Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck.

“You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.”

Further quoting Rocket Lab’s statement, Mashable wrote that the Humanity Star was designed to “serve as a focal point for humanity,” as everyone on Earth, regardless of where they are located, will ideally have a chance to see it.

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Despite Rocket Lab having good intentions in launching the Humanity Star, the satellite’s launch did not go down well with several members of the scientific community. While the Humanity Star’s “disco ball” satellite moniker came from its unusual shape, numerous astronomers used far more critical terms in describing the object, which they generally see as little more than a publicity stunt. As noted in Mashable’s report, Mike Brown and Andy Howell referred to the satellite as “intentionally bright long-term space graffiti” and “space garbage” respectively, while a third astronomer, Meg Schwamb, tweeted that the moon and the planets can invoke “similar feelings of wonder,” thus making Rocket Lab’s endeavor look unnecessary.

In an op-ed written for Scientific American, astronomer Caleb Scharf admitted that the Humanity Star may, in theory, sound like “jolly nice fun.” But he added that the idea of a “sparkly thingy” flying across the skies fills him with “a big dose of dread,” as it reminds him of the ongoing problem of artificial light pollution, which makes it harder for people, may they be amateur skygazers or professional astronomers, to set up telescopes and view the stars and the planets like they were meant to be viewed.

Scharf added that man-made satellites also contribute to the problem, as there are already about 2,000 such objects that orbit Earth and interfere with the images astronomers take from their observations. Concluding his piece, he wrote that the Humanity Star is another “invasion of [his] personal universe” taking up unnecessary space in the night sky, an idea that might have been “cute” in the early days of satellite technology, but not in 2018 when light pollution is a known issue.

Not all scientists were completely opposed to the Humanity Star and the intent behind its launch. Astrophysicist JJ Eldridge, for instance, tweeted that he understands why his colleagues would be upset over the light pollution the satellite could contribute to, but added that Rocket Lab may have been trying to do something to counter all the “negativity in the world at the moment.”

For its part, Rocket Lab has taken time out to reply to the many negative comments lobbied by scientists via social media, explaining via Twitter that its “disco ball” satellite will only blink in the sky for a few seconds, and that it won’t be visible in any given area for the entirety of its nine-month orbit.