Astronomers Are Really Pissed Off About That Disco Ball Satellite In Orbit

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck with the Humanity Star before it launched. Rocket Lab

Hey, remember the other day we told you about that “disco ball” satellite that had been launched into orbit? Well, astronomers aren’t too pleased about it. Not pleased at all.

Called the Humanity Star, it was launched into space by the fledgling US company Rocket Lab, on the second ever launch of their Electron rocket from New Zealand. That launch itself was quite an achievement.

But it wasn’t until after the launch that the company revealed a secret payload on the rocket – this geodesic ball 1 meter (3.3 feet) wide, composed of 65 sheets of carbon fiber. The idea is that observers on the ground can see it shining in the night sky with the naked eye.

Artificial stars like this risk ruining Earth-based astronomy, highlighted by astronomers in tweets collated by Mashable. If you’re taking a long exposure shot of the distant universe, then a rogue satellite passing through your view isn’t going to be too welcome.

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Rocket Lab argued that the Humanity Star would “blink across the sky for just a seconds [sic]”, and would only remain in orbit for at most nine months. It's also not clear how bright it will really be.

“Our hope is that it draws people's attention to the stars,” they added. The object has no propulsion, so there is no means of taking it down until its orbit degrades. 

Their argument is a bit questionable, though, as we already have artificial satellites like the International Space Station (ISS) that people can see. Sending more stuff into orbit with the sole purpose of shining brightly could be seen as a bit objectionable.

And while the mission might be relatively short-lived, many are worried that this could be a sign of things to come. Rocket Lab themselves have said they plan to launch more objects like the Humanity Star in future.

On Twitter Caltech astronomer Mike Brown said the Humanity Star was “both bad for astronomy and a horrible precedent.”

In The Guardian, Richard Easther from the University of Auckland said: “This one instance won’t be a big deal but the idea of it becoming commonplace, especially at larger scales, would bring astronomers out into the street.” 

New York University astrophysicist Benjamin Pope told The Washington Post: “Privately sending bright toys up there can harm the international astronomical community's use of it.”

And in Scientific American, director of astrobiology at Columbia University, Caleb Scharf wrote: “Most of us would not think it cute if I stuck a big flashing strobe-light on a polar bear, or emblazoned my company slogan across the perilous upper reaches of Everest.”

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened and, unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last.

(H/T: Mashable)

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