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More thoughts on the “Humanity Star”

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Since the clandestine launch and deployment of the Rocket Lab “Humanity Star” there has been a lot of discussion and debate about it online. If you put “Humanity Star” into Google and do a general search you will find many articles reporting on the project, most – but not all – describing how astronomers are “up in arms”, “outraged” or “disgusted”. Some might be those things, but I’m not one of them. I’m not engaged in some wild-eyed furious vendetta here. I have very serious concerns, yes, which some people share and others don’t. That’s fine. That’s how mature discussion and debate works. I’m not trying to push my concerns or objections down  anyone else’s throat. But I’m not going to hide those concerns or objections either. As an active amateur astronomer and Outreacher I feel I have a duty to speak out if I think something happening in the world of astronomy is wrong – and I genuinely feel this is wrong.

Reading all the articles, forum posts and comments online it is pretty clear to me that a person’s reaction to and enthusiasm for the Humanity Star “space disco ball” is largely influenced by how long and how often that person actually looks at the night sky already. Most casual sky observers and interested newcomers – people who don’t do amateur astronomy as a serious hobby but are curious enough that they will take the time to go out and look at an eye-catching meeting of planets in the night sky, or will watch the space station if they’re told when and where to look for it – are thinking “That sounds cool! I’ll go look for that! Great idea!” and I’m sure that if/when the HS is predicted to cross their sky they will go out and look for it. Which would be…

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However, more experienced observers – people who like to spend hours at a time under the stars, enjoying the peace and quiet; people with knowledge of what’s “up there” – are the ones annoyed by the HS’s perceived contribution (however small) to light pollution and the way it will intrude on the peaceful environment of the night sky. Many serious amateur astronomers (but, again, not all; some are really not bothered by the HS at all and are wondering what all the fuss is about) see it as a genuine threat to the night sky, because it might encourage others to do the same in the future.

As I said on my previous blog post, I can see both sides, but the fact that Rocket Lab felt the need to essentially smuggle their Humanity Star into orbit suggests to me VERY strongly that they knew in advance that people would raise concerns, so they delivered a fait accompli. Bit cynical, that, but hey, it generated lots of publicity, so job done there…

Some commentators support Rocket Lab’s line that HS will “inspire” people and get people to look up at the sky. Some amateur astronomers agree, and say that anything which gets people to look up at the sky, even for a short time, has to be a good thing. I get that… kind of…and maybe some people will raise their eyes to the sky for the first time and ponder their place in creation. But the problem is lots of initial over-enthusiastic press reports claimed that HS will be “the brightest star in the sky”, and to be fair to Rocket Lab they don’t make that claim anywhere on their website. They say “bright”… repeatedly… but don’t claim it will outshine everything else. But some reporters have, as is the way nowadays, just lazily cut and pasted other reporters’ copy so misinformation has spread.

In fact, having done a lot of research into this using astronomical event prediction websites and apps it seems that HS is not going to be the spectacular sight the press claimed, and many people are now expecting. And the problem here is that most people checking out the website’s tracking page, and looking for HS on their phone apps, will not understand how the astronomical magnitude scale works. They won’t know how bright something that is “magnitude 2.2” or even “0” is. But they WILL remember reading online that HS will be “the brightest object in the sky” so they will go out at the time predicted and expect to see a brilliant flickering light crossing their sky looking like one of the UFOs from “Close Encounters”. They definitely won’t see that. In fact, many people will find it hard to see when it passes over their part of the world because it won’t even be anywhere near as bright as the brightest stars, and if their observing location suffers from light pollution they might not see it at all.

So I think more people are going to be disappointed by the HS than inspired by it. And if that disappointment turns to disillusionment then they could actually be put off looking at things in the night sky rather than inspired to look for them; Rocket Lab’s “space disco ball” could have exactly the opposite effect to the one they claim they want it to have.

Friends of mine in “the space community” – proper space people who know more about orbital dynamics, statistics and things like that than I ever will (thanks, DE!) – have all assured me that the impact of HS on the night will be next to nothing, and I believe them. They’re the experts. My main concern is not about the light pollution HS will cause, though I still believe it will cause some. My main concern is the precedent the launch and deployment of HS sets for the future. I have no doubt it will inspire others to do the same.

And that’s just human nature, especially the nature of wealthy humans involved in big business. I don’t think it’s too much a stretch of the imagination to believe that having seen the huge media interest in HS, other companies are now wondering if they would enjoy similar interest if they launched an HS of their own. But there’d be no point in launching a satellite the same size and brightness as HS would there? No. It would have to be bigger, and brighter, or there’s no point in doing it.

So could the launch of HS lead to a kind of “arms race” in the utilisation of the night sky as an advertising space? That might be a little too far-fetched! But I’m genuinely concerned that as more and more companies start to launch small rockets and small payloads into space (which is a good thing!) the temptation to use the sky as a billboard will become stronger and stronger. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear I’m not.

Many people I know have made the point that we – amateur astronomers and sky-watchers – enjoy watching the space station and “iridium flares” in the night sky, sometimes even travelling away from home just to see them, so why should HS be the cause of such wailing and gnashing of teeth? Again, my main concern is not that HS will increase light pollution, though it will slightly, simply by its nature. I enjoy watching iridium flares and the ISS too, but the big difference is that the space station and iridium satellites are up there for scientific/practical purposes and we see them sometimes as they’re ‘working’. This satellite was put up there purely to be a light in the sky to catch people’s attention and be looked at, that is its sole reason for being there.

So, stripping this back to basics. HS is small, and not going to be up there that long. It will cross the sky in just a couple of minutes when visible, and won’t be dazzlingly bright, so by itself HS might not be a problem, it won’t stop us from looking at and enjoying the night sky. But it’s setting a dangerous precedent, and now it’s up there, and everyone is talking about it,  other companies will now feel able to launch their own satellites to advertise their capabilities and promote themselves, each one feeling the pressure to have *their* satellite bigger and better than the previous one.

As for all the flowery talk about HS “inspiring” people, “bringing them together” and “uniting the world”, don’t fall for all that new age, harp-plucking, fairy-folk, Kum-by-a gumpf. HS is going to be too faint to catch many people’s attention; it is up there purely to attract attention *to the company*.

But won’t all this go away once HS falls back to Earth in about 9 months time? No. Because Rocket Lab is already thinking of doing it again – their own website says so:

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Will those “future iterations” of HS be exactly the same as the first one? No, of course they won’t. Will they be smaller? Fainter in the sky? Of course not – what would be the point of that? They will have to be bigger, brighter, more obvious. So don’t dismiss people like me when we raise concerns about HS leading to more satellites like it – its own creators have already said openly they want to build more.

And apart from that, doesn’t it strike you as fundamentally wrong that a small group of people – maybe just one person – decided that the night sky, which belongs to everyone, was theirs to do with as they wish? Doesn’t it make you feel uncomfortable that that small group of people – or that one person – took it upon themselves to add something to the night sky, just because they could?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not happy at the prospect of our night sky becoming the personal advertising space of a small elite group of rich people. The night sky belongs to everyone on Earth; it’s not the private playground of a few loaded entrepeneurs.

Some people have said “Oh it’s just a few geeky astronomers making a fuss!” or “what will one extra star matter?” Ok. Think of it this way. How would music lovers react if someone decided that it was ok for someone to start buzzing away with a kazoo during performances by orchestras? Just for a couple of minutes. Surely that would be ok? How would ballet audiences react if someone decided that every performance of Swan Lake was going to feature a surprise appearance by a man dressed as a clown, who would dash out from the wings and run across the stage, honking a horn? Just for a minute or so. Surely that would be ok? How would visitors to art galleries react if, every time they went to view their favourite paintings or sculptures, the respectful peace and quiet was shattered by someone playing a Honey G song over the PR system? Just for a minute or two. Surely that would be fine?

What have those nightmarish (and ok, maybe just a little bit ridiculous) visions got to do with HS? Just imagine a future where it was impossible to enjoy a peaceful night under the night sky because every few minutes another HS would appear, distracting you with its flashing, before fading away again. We would lose the tranquillity and peace we enjoy now. The beautiful stars of the Plough, Orion and other constellations would become just a backdrop for “look at me!” satellites. The night sky would have become just a wall for “artists” to tag with their graffiti…

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And if everything I’ve said so far still doesn’t worry you, if you’re still not convinced this is a big deal, think of it this way. Light pollution is a huge problem now because for a long time it just wasn’t taken seriously. I remember back in the early 80s when the first concerns were raised by a few astronomers who saw which way the wind was blowing. We convinced ourselves it wasn’t that bad, that we could live with it. Now look where we are. While modern LED streetlights are quite good at reducing light pollution, and have made a big difference in some places, the cheap security lights you find stacked to the ceiling in Home Bargains and Aldi etc – the blindingly-bright £4.99 searchlights people mount above their garage doors, pointing straight out, that come on when a midge flies past are ruining the night sky for many town and city dwellers. A recent survey showed that despite old sodium streetlights being replaces with modern LEDs, light pollution is growing year after year and shows no sign of reducing. That’s not news of course to us amateur astronomers who now need special filters on our cameras and have to flee to special dark sky reserves to see the sky properly. But they’re not solutions – not everyone can afford to spend hundreds of pounds on filters, or can take a weekend off to travel to a star-camp like Kielder, can they?

If we’d taken a stand against light pollution earlier on, before it got out of hand, if we’d educated people properly, perhaps we could have prevented it becoming as bad as it is now. Well, this is our opportunity to get in early and prevent the night sky itself from becoming polluted – deliberately or otherwise – by companies and individuals.

If anyone who is serious about astronomy, or who just loves being under a peaceful night sky, is OK with that, well, we might as well just give up now and all take up stamp collecting.

Because we won’t deserve a dark sky.

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The “Humanity Star”

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Yesterday Rocket Lab, a small, private New Zealand-based company that recently launched a rocket into space and deployed several small satellites into orbit, revealed that one of those “satellites” was a project called “The Humanity Star“, a 1m across ball covered in highly-reflective triangles of material. The purpose of this “space disco ball” – which the company says will look like a “shooting star” in the sky, flashing as it goes, and was inspired by the flares produced by Iridium satellites – is to get people looking up at the night sky, to inspire them, to make them contemplate their place in the universe, and it has created a lot of interest online. Some are for it, most very much against it.

Me? I have very mixed feelings about this.

As someone heavily involved in astronomy outreach and education I spend a lot of what I laughingly call my “free time” encouraging people to get up off their sofas, go outside and look up at the beauty to be seen in the night sky. And at first glance this “star” would appear to help with that, just as the bright “flares” from Iridium satellites do. Like many people I have enjoyed looking out for bright Iridium flares over recent years, and have pointed them out at stargazing events to others too. They can be both fascinating and beautiful, especially the really bright ones, and are a valuable and useful Outreach tool. So, isn’t this “Humanity Star” going to be just like having another Iridium satellite up there?

If you believe the Humanity Star’s website then yes, that’s the case. It was inspired by the flares produced by Iridium satellites. Indeed, the website goes even further, declaring that the purpose of this new “star” is to “inspire” people and get them to contemplate their place in the universe etc, etc. All very commendable.

However, if you look past the flowery New Age language, and dig a little deeper, the “Humanity Star” isn’t perhaps quite as innocent or inspiring a venture as the website or publicity suggests.

For a start, there’s the issue of light pollution. We – astronomers, sky-watchers, the public in general – now find it very hard to enjoy being out under a truly dark sky because of light pollution from streetlights, advertising signs, pub and hotel signs, factories and offices etc. For a long time there has been concern about light pollution spreading up into the actual sky itself, as companies have wanted to place illuminated signs in orbit advertising themselves or their products. There have been a few proposals over the years, but none of them ever got very far. Now we have this “Humanity Star”, a man-made object with no scientific purpose, which will be visible in the night sky as a “bright light”. Many are concerned that this is not just a source of light pollution in its own right, but that it launch sets a dangerous precedent, which will lead to other companies placing bigger, brighter objects in the sky in the future.

I share these concerns, which might seem a little hypocritical seeing as I’ve been a fan of Iridium flares. However, the difference is those flares are an unintentional bonus – the satellites are up there to do a job, and it just happens that if you’re beneath one when the sunlight hits its arrays you will see it flaring brightly in the sky. This “Humanity Star” was put up there purely to create an artificial light in the sky, and that means it is light pollution, of a sort.

A lot depends on how bright this new “star” is going to be, and the website descriptions are really not much help here. They just say it will be “bright”, and also say this…

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However, the things they say on the website are VERY misleading, bordering on hype. The website says this about the “Humanity Star”…

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Now, any novice sky-watcher knows that shooting stars are gone in the blink of an eye, whereas satellites take a couple of minutes to cross the sky. So this throwaway sentence suggests that the website was either written by some well-meaning PR person with very little knowledge of astronomy and the night sky, or the descriptions are deliberately over the top.

As much as I support these “New Space” companies cutting the costs of rocket launches, and “opening up” space to more people, I have come to the conclusion that for all the New Age wiffy-waffy words about inspiration, etc, the main purpose of this “star” is just to promote the Rocket Lab company behind the rocket that launched it. It is an orbital advert – the first in history to actually work. If the company was open about that it would be a clever achievement in its own right. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to dress it up as something to inspire people.

But again, the impact of this new “star” on the night sky, and on the people who enjoy looking at it, will depend greatly on how bright it will be, and how much it will flash as it crosses the sky. The website suggests it will be a bright object that will look like a “flashing shooting star” in the sky. True?

Using the Heavens Above website I’ve looked at when I will be able to see the Humanity Star, and how long it will take to cross the sky. The results – for my location, at least – suggest that it will absolutely, definitely NOT be a bright object in the sky, and it will look NOTHING like a shooting star, because it will, as is the case with other satellites and the space station, take minutes to cross the sky.

Note: I only found this out by checking things for myself; the company has refused to answer my Twitter enquiries.

Using Heavens Above I checked when the “Humanity Star” will be visible from Kendal, Cumbria, where I live, and it turns out I won’t be able to see it until the start of March, and from then it will be visible in either the morning or evening sky until the end of May. Looking at the month of March, the “star” will be visible on 60 different occasions, each “pass” across my sky a little different to the others. Some will be high, some will be low. Some will be brighter than others –

BUT HOW BRIGHT WILL IT BE???

Looking at March, only 15 of those 60 passes will be bright enough to be visible with the naked eye. and none of them will be as bright as the space station, a bright planet or a bright star. In fact, if the Heavens Above predictions are correct then the “Humanity Star” will only just reach 4th magnitude for me during March, which is nowhere near as bright as any of the stars in the Big Dipper, a star pattern most people can recognise in the sky and are familiar with. The other passes will only be visible through binoculars or a small telescope.

Of course, this initial prediction might turn out to be wrong. I have no idea of what info the Heavens Above website is using, they might not be taking into account the highly reflective surfaces of the “star”. It might well be that the star will be a lot brighter than this initial check suggests. ( It will definitely be brighter from other locations; I know that because people I know have done the same as me and checked observing details from where they live, and are getting magnitudes as bright as +2, about as bright as Polaris, the Pole Star). If I’m wrong about any of this I’ll happily re-write this with the correct figures. But at the moment it looks like the “Humanity Star” will be quite hard for the non-astronomer to spot in the sky, and a lot less impressive and inspiring than the company is making out.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m NOT trying to be a killjoy about this, I’m really not. I think Rocket Lab has done an amazing job with its rocket, and the more companies putting payloads into space, and reducing the cost of access to space, the better. And I’m all for projects that get people looking up at the night sky, so if everything the company behind this “Humanity Star” says is true then yes, it might do that, for some people. But I think the website is at best inaccurate and at worst badly misleading. Deliberately misleading? Hmmm. I wouldn’t go that far. But they definitely need to be a bit more honest about what their “star” will actually look like.

This kind of thing is going to happen again and again as the “New Space” revolution gathers pace. Elon Musk is sending one of his cars into space when the first Falcon Heavy rocket launches next month, and while some people think that’s a cool thing to do others think it’s a rich playboy being stupid and immature, and a complete waste of resources and money. Now we have another company launching a “space disco glitter ball”. Cool or crazy? You decide. At the end of the day these are privately-funded missions and the entrepeneurs behind them can do what the hell they want with their – and their Shareholders’ – money.

So, where are we at the end of this discussion? Best case scenario: this is a lot of fuss over nothing. It will just be a faint “star” in the sky for a few months, a curiosity, nothing more, nothing less, and then it will be gone, hopefully after inspiring people to look up at the night sky. I hope so. Worst case scenario: this project might lead to professional PR and advertising people casting a beady eye at the sky and wondering how they can use the night sky to promote their own or their clients’ products. I’m sure the people behind it mean well, but this “Humanity Star”, launched and deployed in secret, to my knowledge without consultation with any astronomical bodies or experts, will set a precedent for others to follow.

I guess I see it this way. The night sky is already full of wonderful sights – glittering star clusters, misty nebulae, gracefully-curled galaxies – which can inspire people around the world if they are shown them. I don’t personally believe people will find a faint star, blinking as it drifts across that sky, anywhere near as inspiring as anything that’s already up there. But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.

And as for the light pollution issue… we’ve enough light pollution already. There’s absolutely no need for anyone to add to it, whether it’s by pointing another floodlight at a pub sign or flinging a flashing disco ball up into space. Any light pollution is wrong. And this new “star” will add to light pollution.

But worst of all, the “Humanity Star” is taking us a step closer to turning the night sky into something to be used and exploited by a few instead of a natural wonder to be enjoyed and treasured by all.  Please, please, let’s not turn the night sky into an advertising billboard.