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Rocket Lab launched giant disco ball into space

Photo: The Humanity Star

As the space launch market heats up, Rocket Lab joins the list of private contractors to successfully launch a number of small satellites into low orbit.

Earlier this month, they launched their Electron rocket dubbed “Still Testing” from Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand.

They delivered a Dove Pioneer Earth-imaging satellite for Planet, and two weather and ship tracking Lemur-2 satellites for Spire. The Electron rocket is no Falcon 9, but their much smaller sized rocket also means lower launch costs, geared towards smaller satellite makers.

The rocket which can carry a nominal payload of 150kg, also contained a secret payload, but it wasn’t Zuma.

The fourth payload was actually the “Humanity Star”, which in short, is a huge geodesic sphere which resembles a disco ball. The ball which measures 1 meter in diameter serves no real purpose other than to “be a bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe.”

Depending on where you are, you may be lucky to see the ball create a ‘flare’ as it reflects sunlight down to Earth. Usually these flares are best seen around dusk or dawn.

The carbon fibre based ball has 65 reflective panels and rotates rapidly while orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes (between 300-500km above the Earth’s surface) with a nearly polar inclination of 82.9 °. The satellite was developed by Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO Peter Beck.

Beck’s inspiration came from the flares created by the first generation Iridium satellites. He was not exactly sure if the experiment would be a success, but thinks the flares from the Humanity Star may be just as bright as those produced by Iridium satellites.

The Humanity Star serves as a demonstration piece and will only remain in orbit for 9 months before it slips back into Earth’s grab and burn up.

If you would like to see the satellite yourself, they have a page where you can track the next pass in your area. If you have the premium version of ISS Detector for iOS or Android, you can also enable it under the Famous Objects section.

Unfortunately I have to wait at least 40 days again before it passes, but if you were lucky to see and photograph it, we would love to see it in the comments section below.

A problem for astronomers

Many astronomers were not pleased with the launch; some of them referring to the satellite as “space graffiti”.

Objects like these make it challenging for those observing the stars as the glint from the satellite can make it much harder to observe distant stars in the background. Here’s a quick example of what happens when a satellite crosses the view Hubble’s field of view.

The director of astrobiology at Columbia University Caleb Scharf had quite to say about it in a recent blog post.

Satellites impact this science as well. With about 2,000 known artificial satellites orbiting Earth (not counting true space junk) astronomers are well used to finding their hard won images streaked with the destructive light trails of glinting objects as they pass overhead. This problem may become more acute in the future as large telescopes like the LSST seek to repeatedly scan the sky night after night, looking in part for cosmic events unfolding – from supernovae to the entirely unexpected. Human-made blights on these precious data will be a pain to deal with, like having vermin invade your pantry.

Is an object like the Humanity Star a major problem? Well, to be fair it’s not going to single-handedly demolish astronomy or obscure our view of the heavens. But I think it represents a curiously uninformed outlook on what our species is dealing with at the moment. It might have been cute to do this in the late 1950s, when Sputnik was fresh on our minds, when there was a genuine sense of wonder (and concern) about the future space age. But in 2018 it feels to me like yet another invasion of my personal universe, another flashing item asking for eyeballs. It’s hogging some of that precious resource, the dark night sky, polluting part of the last great wilderness.

Other astronomers were quite honest about their thoughts on the new satellite.

Realistically speaking, the Humanity Star on its own is not really much of a problem, but when combined with other active and dead satellites that occasionally reflect sunlight, it becomes a bigger problem for deep space observation. Many astronomers fear the publicity stunt may encourage other smaller agencies to attempt similar.

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