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Humanity Star raises questions about space exploitation

PETER BECK HUMANITY STAR
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Artificial satellite, meant to bring mankind together, is giving astronomers agita

Sometime in March, Americans may start noticing a bright object blinking its way across the night sky. The Humanity Star, launched last week from a private launchpad in New Zealand, is meant to bring the peoples of the world together by forcing their attention on one curious object.

The spinning, silver geodesic sphere orbits Earth every 90 minutes. Its website says it was built to reflect the sun’s light and “encourage people to consider their place in the universe.” Planners hope it’s bright enough to cut through the smog of big cities or the clouds of war in various parts of the world.

“No matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace, everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth in the night sky,” Peter Beck, founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab, an American company that launched the object last week, wrote on the project’s website.

But those who look to the skies for their living are not impressed. Michael E. Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, called it “space graffiti.”

Besides, what’s wrong with actual stars, some experts wondered. Why can’t they serve to inspire tired humanity?

“How arrogant do you have to be to create a fake star that would inspire people more than an actual star?” Jackie Faherty, an Astrophysicist at American Museum of Natural History, asked on Twitter, accusing Beck of a bad publicity stunt. “Or even a planet or the moon?”

Perhaps even more concerning is the precedent Rocket Lab has set. Along with Humanity Star, the company’s small rocket payload also included other small satellites. The fact that it was done successfully from a private launchpad worries astronomers. Caleb A. Scharf, director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center at Columbia University, wrote in Scientific American that space is already polluted by artificial light, so the Humanity Star makes it more difficult for astronomers to monitor cosmic events, he wrote. Rocket Lab has now made it easier and cheaper to launch minisatellites.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told the New York Times that now space could become even more cluttered:

There are more active satellites orbiting the Earth than ever: more than 1,700, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Small satellites used for observing conditions on Earth have driven much of the recent growth.

Communications satellites are also drawing interest: In 2016, companies in the United States filed for a Federal Communications Commission license for 8,731 non-geostationary communications satellites, including 4,425 for SpaceX and nearly 3,000 for Boeing, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported.

As the sky gets brighter, “you actually start to find it difficult to do astronomy at all from Earth,” McDowell told the Times. “And so that’s sort of part of the concern that people have—that there needs to be some respect for the dark sky.”

The Humanity Star is designed to degrade and burn up on reentry into the earth’s atmosphere after nine months. Maybe it will have accomplished one thing: turning more people’s gaze heavenward and inspiring a desire to learn more about the stars that have been there forever.

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