spaceSpace and Physics

That Controversial Disco Ball Satellite Is Going To Burn Up In The Atmosphere Today


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

The Humanity Star. Rocket Lab

Update: It's dead

Hey, remember that artificial star that was launch into orbit the other month? Well, it’s about to return to Earth.


On Sunday January 21, American company Rocket Lab launched the Humanity Star on their rocket called Still Testing from New Zealand. It caused a bit of a fuss, as it was made to purposefully reflect light and appear bright, something astronomers weren’t too happy about.

Originally Rocket Lab said it would orbit for about nine months, until its orbit degraded enough that it re-entered the atmosphere (it doesn’t have any form of propulsion). However, it now looks like its returning to Earth early as there's been more atmospheric drag on it than thought. Today, in fact.

“Things often perform differently in a space environment, which is what we discovered with the Humanity Star,” Peter Beck, the company’s CEO, told The Atlantic.

The object is small, just 1 meter (3.3 feet) across, with 65 highly reflective panels. So it will almost certainly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, with none of the object expected to make it to Earth’s surface.


Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said on Twitter that the object’s orbit was degrading rapidly. At the moment it’s at a height of about 190 kilometers (120 miles), with re-entry expected between 6.30am and 11.30am EDT today. In the last 24 hours it’s dropped at least 30 kilometers (18 miles).


According to the website Satview, the object (which is in a polar orbit) is currently making its way past South America, and will soon pass over Antarctica. Rocket Lab’s own tracker doesn’t reflect this yet, although it does look like the object is doomed.

As mentioned, the object was pretty controversial, as artificial stars like this risk ruining Earth-based astronomy. For example, if you’re taking a long exposure of an object in the night sky, having this come across your vision will likely ruin your observation.

Still, a lot of people had the chance to view the object, which is nice. But Rocket Lab have said they are considering launching more objects like this in the future, which won’t particularly fill anyone with glee. And many will be hoping it doesn’t lead other companies to try something similar.


At any rate, it’s about to burn up in the atmosphere. Aren’t you glad that’s all over?


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