Earlier this month, the New Zealand-based private spaceflight company Rocket Lab successfully delivered its first orbital payload. Rocket Lab's Electron rocket released, along with three commercial satellites, an art installation-as-satellite called the Humanity Star.
Rocket Lab's goal is nothing less than a reflection on the cosmos. “Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with,” founder Peter Beck said in a statement on the company's website (which also hosts a location tracker for the orb).
But the giant Dungeons & Dragons die floating through space is not a critical hit. Not among professional stargazers. On Thursday, Mashable journalist Miriam Kramer collected criticisms from astronomers on Twitter. The scientists described the Humanity Star as vandalism, a disco ball, “space graffiti” and “space garbage.” Naked eyes can already see the International Space Station, astronomer Eric Mamajek tweeted, and sending reflective objects into orbit has not, in the past, prompted “awe and world peace.”
Columbia University astronomer Caleb A. Scharf, writing at Scientific American, said the idea “sounds like jolly nice fun” but also fills him “with a big dose of dread.” The satellite, in his perspective, is an unwanted intrusion into an environment increasingly crowded by satellites.
There are a few thousand satellites in Earth's orbit. And our ability to deploy a bunch of satellites at once is growing: In February, India deployed 104 small satellites from a single rocket, setting a world record. Decades before space powers had such capabilities, NASA astrophysicist Donald Kessler worried about space debris triggering a chain reaction of collisions among a sky thick with satellites, a scenario termed the “Kessler syndrome.”
This is not to suggest that the Humanity Star will be the spark that sets off a Kessler syndrome. “Kessler was describing an orbital Nagasaki, where everything was annihilated,” Federal Communications Commission economist Peter J. Alexander, who has written a paper on space trash, told The Washington Post in 2013. “But there are degrees in which the environment gets degraded even before that sort of collisional cascade,” he added.
“I don't want to be too negative about the Rocket Lab ball — I salute them for their success in putting it into orbit,” New York University astrophysicist Benjamin Pope told The Post. He also pointed to a tweet that suggested not everyone in the field was opposed, summing up the counternarrative: “It is probably short lived and kind of cool.”
That said, he disagreed with Rocket Lab's decision. “Privately sending bright toys up there can harm the international astronomical community's use of it,” he said.
Satellites do not need to be chronic pests or annihilators to cause headaches. A quick blaze through a telescope's field of view can disrupt research. “Astronomers are well used to finding their hard won images streaked with the destructive light trails of glinting objects as they pass overhead,” wrote Scharf, who also compared launching the Humanity Star to sticking a “big flashing strobe-light on a polar bear.”
“This Humanity Star could well be a minor annoyance,” Pope said, “in particular, as it zooms through the sky it will pass through the fields of view of ground based observatories and ruin patches of their data.” He could only find limited information about the object's orbit, but he was concerned it might travel above large observatories in Hawaii or Chile, which are particularly sensitive to bright objects.
Rocket Lab did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But when Pope tweeted, “Oh god why would you do this to us astronomers,” the company replied that the object's presence will be short-lived.
The Humanity Star will blink across the sky for just a seconds, and it won't be visible in your region for the full 9 months in orbit. Our hope is that it draws people's attention to the stars, then leaves them looking to the universe long after The Humanity Star has passed.— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) January 24, 2018
The company is also “considering future iterations of the Humanity Star” once this one is destroyed, according to its website.