Space Graffiti: Astronomers Say Rocket Lab's Disco Ball Satellite Is Bad For Science


The Humanity Star is a three-foot-wide highly reflective orb that Rocket Lab, the New Zealand-based spaceflight company that launched it earlier this month, has said would become the brightest thing in the sky.

Giant Disco Ball

The carbon-fiber orb is designed to reflect light from the sun back to Earth. It is expected to orbit Earth once every 90 minutes until October when its orbit will decay and the satellite burns up in the atmosphere.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said the object was designed as a bright symbol that can remind humanity of its fragile place in the universe.

"Everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth in the night sky," Beck said. "My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions, and what is important.

Bad For Science

Not everyone shared Beck's sentiments though. The launch of what others have called a giant disco ball in space has received backlash from scientists.

Scientists said that light pollution is already a concern for those who study stars and the situation is exacerbated by the introduction of the fake star.

New York University astrophysicist Benjamin Pope explained that as the Humanity Star zooms through the sky, it will pass through the fields of view of observatories, which can possibly ruin patches of their data.

The scientist said that he has limited information about the orbit of the object but he fears that it may pass above large observatories, such as those in Chile or Hawaii, which are very sensitive to bright objects.

Emily Petroff from Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy said that satellites that orbit Earth are already a plague. Artificial objects such as Rocket Lab's orb can limit areas of the sky that scientists can study.

"Transmissions from these satellites ruin an increasingly large fraction of our observations every year and make some areas of the sky perpetually inaccessible to our telescopes," Petroff said.

The object will not be a permanent feature of the sky but some scientists raised concern that it could serve as precedence.

"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," said Richard Easther from the University of Auckland.

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