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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.

 

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6 Responses

  1. Same thing for the NYC, USA area – no visible passes for quite a while.

  2. “Jim Clark, a graduate student at MIT’s STARlab, wrote Quartz in an e-mail, adding that their calculations of the satellite’s orbit suggest that, for now, it will not be visible at night between latitudes between 46° north and 46° south.”
    ““It doesn’t get really good until late February, not really until March that say observers on the US mainland are going to be able to see it easily,” Jonathan McDowell, an scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who also looked at the satellite tracking data, told Quartz.”

  3. […] eine Sequenz von heute Abend. Derweil regt sich Widerstand gegen den idiotischen Satelliten, der nichts als hell sein soll (und das hoffentlich gar nicht sein wird) … [22:05 […]

  4. If I’m not mistaken, Heavens Above simply uses closest approach distance, albedo, and angular diameter. I’m just guessing that based on their predictions for other objects, though I do imagine their Iridium Flare predictor could easily be adopted to the geometry of this satellite.

  5. A tagg titⅼe também deve seer utilizada no códіgo.

  6. A well thought-out and written article. However, I don’t think a small orbiting disco ball, that is unlikely to be very bright, and only going to be in orbit for nine months, can really be described as “light pollution”. I’m looking forward to tracking it, in the same manner as we do the ISS and Iridium flares.

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