Vexed astronomers all over the world have lambasted Rocket Lab, a private U.S./New Zealand-based aerospace development company, after it surreptitiously launched a satellite resembling a giant disco ball into the sky.
What is effectively New Zealand’s first satellite, the “Humanity Star” is an oversized, carbon-fiber geodesic sphere much like a disco ball spanning one meter in diameter fitted with 65 highly reflective panels. The sphere spins rapidly, reflecting the sun’s light back to Earth, creating a similar effect as a rotating disco ball that can be seen in the night sky and should be visible with the naked eye anywhere in the world.
The fake star was launched into orbit Sunday by space exploration startup Rocket Lab on the company’s Electron rocket, which was also carrying more conventional satellites among its payload, from a remote sheep and cattle farm on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.
The moment prompted jubilation and pride across New Zealand, with Rocket Lab’s founder and chief executive Peter Beck (pictured right) pronouncing it as an “almost unprecedented” step in commercial space exploration.
The sphere, the company has claimed, will reflect the sun’s rays back to Earth creating a flashing light visible from anywhere on the globe. It is expected to become the brightest object in the night sky for nine months until it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
Rocket Lab envisions the Humanity Star to be a “reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe”, and Peter Beck said the sphere would “create a shared experience for everyone on the planet”.
But many astrophysicists disagree. Richard Easther from the University of Auckland told The Guardian that Rocket Lab may have unintentionally hit on a particularly sore point for his profession.
Light pollution is already a serious concern for scientists whose focus is on the stars, and the introduction of a glinting disco ball in space has not been widely welcomed.
“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,” Easther said.
“I can understand the exuberance for this sort of thing but I also get the sense that they did not realize that people could see a downside to it.”
Others were less diplomatic.
“Wow. Intentionally bright long-term space graffiti. Thanks a lot @RocketLab,” California Institute of Technology astronomer Mike Brown wrote on Twitter.
Or, as the Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University Caleb Scharf wrote in Scientific American, the star represented “another invasion of my personal universe, another flashing item asking for eyeballs”.
“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,” Scharf wrote.
“Jamming a brilliantly glinting sphere into the heavens feels similarly abusive. It’s definitely a reminder of our fragile place in the universe, because it’s infesting the very thing that we urgently need to cherish.”