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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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3 Responses

  1. […] Cumbrian Sky Cumbrian Sky: Since the clandestine launch and deployment of the Rocket Lab “Humanity Star” […]

  2. I agree with your concern that more stunts like this will clog up our skies. Also, as you mention, the people who will look for this and not find a pass over them for months will be disalluanged and just file it under ‘space hype’. Thanks for the article. bob

  3. […] Sinnlos-Satelliten (dem andere folgen könnten) weitere Artikel und Meinungen hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier, hier. [22:30 […]

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