Astronomers Are Not Happy About The 'Disco Ball Star' Launched Into Orbit

Friday, 26 January 2018 - 6:45PM
Space
Earth
Friday, 26 January 2018 - 6:45PM
Astronomers Are Not Happy About The 'Disco Ball Star' Launched Into Orbit
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Rocket Lab
Last week, thanks in large part to the dropping costs of launching objects into space (and the growing number of foolhardy entrepreneurs that fancy themselves as the next Elon Musk), Rocket Lab shot a giant disco ball into space.

The Humanity Star, which is a satellite about a meter (three feet) in diameter, is covered in large reflective mirrors. Just like any disco ball down here on Earth's surface, the intention is to reflect light and create a beautiful light show which the company's CEO, Peter Beck, hopes will be seen by everyone "no matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace".

Rocket Lab is hoping that this will now be "the brightest object in the night sky", and it hasn't taken long for astronomers to start complaining about the light pollution.




In a piece for Scientific American, Caleb Scharf, director of astrobiology at Columbia University, called the Humanity Star "satellite vermin" and went on to say:

Opening quote
"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. 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."
Closing quote


Harsh words indeed. While Rocket Labs' intentions here may have been well-meaning in theory, it seems that in practice those who study the stars intensely are more than a little put out that legitimate stars, planets, and other twinkling lights in the night's sky are being forced to compete with a flashy disco ball.

It does seem like the Humanity Star is going to be not just obstructing the view of the night's sky, but it's also going to be a pain for astronomers who are trying to look at distant objects without being badgered by gaudy distractions.

According to Abel Méndez of the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo:

Opening quote
"I understand the concerns of many astronomers, especially those doing optical work. There is always a very low probability of a satellite confusing or obscuring an astronomical observation. This is especially true for bright ones such as Humanity Star. Luckily, they move very fast out of the field of view."
Closing quote


Of course, there's also another danger to stunts like this. It's hard not to see Rocket Labs' mission here as a publicity stunt - the company has essentially created a new star (from the average stargazer's perspective) in order to get some good marketing buzz, and it's likely only a matter of time before other companies jump on this particular bandwagon.

The near future will probably see a lot more bright, trashy advertising cluttering the night's sky. Certainly there are plenty of companies that would love to get some solid attention by carving a corporate logo into the moon, Hancock style, and if an organization can figure out how to get these kinds of satellites to fly in formation, we could be forced to endure sponsorship on the night's sky inviting us to EAT AT JOE's, like a Looney Tunes cartoon gone horribly wrong.

Here's hoping that Rocket Labs' actions don't open the floodgates for the commercialization of the night's sky. For those of us who enjoy the quiet, unsullied beauty of a starry night, we might need to do our best to appreciate the view while it still lasts.
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