Rocket Lab’s Humanity Star was supposed to remind us of our “fragile place in the universe”. Astronomers, however, think it’s a disruptive, useless stunt.
"You are small and fragile." - Humanity Star
[Photo by Rocket Lab]
If the vast expanse of the known universe wasn’t enough to make you remember how small you truly are in the cosmic scheme of things, the privately-owned space company Rocket Lab will remind you. The company recently launched a three-foot wide geodesic sphere that looks like a giant disco ball into orbit. Called “Humanity Star”, the ball is made of carbon fiber and fitted with 65 reflective panels. The sphere was launched by Rocket Lab from a remote farm in New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck described the successful launch as “almost unprecedented” in commercial space exploration. He claims that Humanity Star will “create a shared experience for everyone on the planet”. The launch triggered a wave of proud celebrations across New Zealand.
However, astronomers are begging to differ.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck poses with Humanity Star [Photo by Rocket Lab]
Rocket Lab claims that the sphere will reflect flashing light back to Earth, and anyone at any point in the globe will be able to see it—hence the “shared experience”. In spite of Rocket Lab’s seemingly good intentions, however, astronomers have had a less than sanguine reaction to the stunt.
“Wow. Intentionally bright long-term space graffiti. Thanks a lot Rocket Lab,” wrote California Institute of Technology astronomer Mike Brown on his Twitter page. He called the satellite “bad for astronomy and a horrible precedent”, and has even created a new hashtag: #SpaceSpam. Asked if he thinks that “delays to astronomical projects” aren’t a good trade-off for “public inspiration”, Brown responded in the negative, comparing the stunt to “putting giant billboards in the Grand Canyon to inspire people to go there”.
The rocket carrying Humanity Star takes off for space. [Photo by Rocket Lab]
Many others have also been less than charitable toward Humanity Star and Rocket Lab. Las Cumbres Observatory astronomer Andy Howell called the satellite “space garbage”, while others consider it “space vandalism”.
Of course, the biggest issue here may be light pollution. Light pollution is already a tenuous problem for astronomers, given that it has already rendered the Milky Way invisible to a third of humanity. A blinking orb from Earth launched into the skies will certainly be of no help.
Do we really need a fake star to remind us of how fragile we really are?
So will astronomers and Rocket Lab see eye to eye on the matter? It doesn’t seem like it. While astronomers are adamant in their criticisms and protests, Rocket Lab seems to remain unaffected by the backlash. According to Humanity Star’s website, the company is looking into creating “future iterations”.
It’s also worth noting that a project like this would not have gotten off the ground if the proper authorities had not signed off on it. Reports say that authorities in both New Zealand and the United States gave the launch the green light, and regulators have not seen anything wrong with the project.
Humanity Star is expected to be the brightest object in the sky for nine months before it returns to Earth. Will humanity no longer have something to remind ourselves of our place in the universe then? Perhaps not. After all, we have actual stars for that.
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