A rocket launched from New Zealand earlier this week took a surprising object into orbit, a large reflective “disco ball” that will be visible to the naked eye on Earth for most of 2018.
Called the Humanity Star, it was launched by American company Rocket Lab on Sunday aboard their Electron rocket called Still Testing, which lifted off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island.
The rocket carried with it three cubesats, tiny satellites that will be used for research, placed into a near-polar orbit. After the launch, the company also revealed a secret payload that had been on board – the Humanity Star.
“Humanity is finite, and we won't be here forever,” the company’s founder, Peter Beck, said on a website set up for the object. “Yet in the face of this almost inconceivable insignificance, humanity is capable of great and kind things... The Humanity Star is to remind us of this.”
It is orbiting Earth once every 90 minutes, at a height of between 293 and 521 kilometers (182 and 324 miles). The object is about 1 meter (3 feet) across and has 65 highly reflective panels made of carbon fiber.
On the website, you can track the orbit of the Humanity Star, enabling you to see it in the night sky. It’s unclear how bright the object will appear yet, although Beck has suggested it will be comparable to an Iridium flare – flashes caused by the solar panels of Iridium communications satellites – although that seems a bit unlikely based on its size.
That might be cause for concern for astronomers, who historically have been pretty opposed to projects like this, which can interfere with observations. Last year, a group of Russian scientists launched a similar object called Mayak, although it appeared to have failed to deploy its pyramid-shaped reflector in orbit.
Rocket Lab said the orbit of the Humanity Star would degrade in about nine months, when it would then re-enter the atmosphere. If it stays up for that long, it will be visible pretty much around the world, as its polar orbit will take it over most locations.
The object, a geodesic sphere, is spinning rapidly on its orbit around Earth. It contains no instruments or thrusters that we’re aware of but is simply a spinning disco ball-like object.
“Essentially it creates a similar effect as a disco ball, creating the appearance of a bright flashing shooting star,” Rocket Lab said. They also noted they were “considering future iterations of the Humanity Star”.