Imagine we detect an interstellar object entering our Solar System. At first, astronomers think it’s just another natural interloper like Oumuamua or comet Borisov. We’re warming up to the idea of visitors from other parts of the galaxy, though they’ve been inanimate so far.
But then, what if it becomes clear that something’s different about this visitor? What if it moves unnaturally or somehow behaves purposefully? What if it takes up a stable orbit somewhere? What if, as we gather more evidence, it becomes clear that it’s a probe of some sort sent to us intentionally? What if it communicates with us?
Suddenly, as if thrust into a science fiction plot, humanity is in a totally different situation. What do we do?
It’s a question I’ve gotten lots, now that the calendar has flipped over from February to March. When will we get our first good look at the Humanity Star reflector satellite?
The Humanity Star satellite was a surprise payload object placed on the January 21st, 2018 inaugural orbital launch for Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. Said launch occurred at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, placing Humanity Star in a 92 minute orbit inclined 83 degrees to the equator.
Dubbed “A bright symbol and a reminder of our fragile place in the Universe,” Humanity Star is a one metre-wide reflective ball. The project is part of an effort to get humanity looking up worldwide in an effort to raise awareness about the night sky and space. Apparently, the cheap showiness of the natural night sky just isn’t enough to drag kids from their smartphone screens these days…
The Upcoming Passes
It makes sense to put a low priority payload such as a shinny orbiting ball or a Tesla roadster on an inaugural rocket launch. Anything can happen the first time ’round, and you wouldn’t want to say, bet the success of the James Webb Space Telescope on an untested launch platform.
And since placing Humanity Star in orbit was a secondary objective for Electron, the orbit is a tough one to observe. It’s just now becoming visible around middle latitudes this week over the swath of the planet inhabited by most of well, humanity.
Heavens-Above’s main page has a link dedicated to Humanity Star. Early magnitude estimates place its maximum brightness on a good overhead pass at around magnitude +1—visible to the naked eye, but hardly the “Brightest Object in the Heavens!” proclaimed on many websites.
And what goes up, must come back down. Very early predictions by the U.S. Joint Space Operations Command’s Space-Track website place the reentry for Humanity Star at sometime around March 25th. We’ll be watching for Humanity Star from our current base camp of operations in Norfolk, Virginia this week, clear skies willing. Follow us on Twitter (we’re @Astroguyz) for updates on sightings, magnitude etc.
There’s no word yet as to when the next Electron rocket launch from New Zealand by Rocket Lab will take place.
Is it good to put shinny junk in space? Another recent effort, the Russian Mayak reflector satellite from 2017, proved to be underwhelming. The first constellation of Iridium satellites will reenter over the next few years, marking the end of the Iridium Flare Era. One Japanese company even wants to provide customized artificial meteor showers.
It reminds me of the good old/bad old days of the 1970s, when plans were afoot to place everything in orbit, from large reflectors to abolish the night (!) to orbiting advertising. And while our astrophotos aren’t getting photo-bombed by Pepsi or McDonald’s logos (yet), we can all chase down the latest attempt to get folks to look up this weekend.
This past weekend, the New Zealand-based aerospace company Rocket Lab reached another milestone. On Sunday, January 21st, the company conducted the second launch – the first having taken place this past summer – of its Electron booster. This two-stage, lightweight rocket is central to the company’s vision of reducing the costs of individual launches by sending light payloads to orbit with regular frequency.
This mission was also important because it was the first time that the company sent payloads into orbit. In addition to several commercial payloads, the launch also sent a secret payload into orbit at the behest of the company’s founder (Peter Beck). It is known as the “Humanity Star“, a disco-like geodesic sphere that measures 1 meter (3.3 ft) in diameter and will form a bright spot in the sky that will be visible to people on Earth.
The Humanity Star is central to Beck’s vision of how space travel can improve the lives of people here on Earth. In addition to presenting extensive opportunities for scientific research, there is also the way it fosters a sense of unity between people and nations. This is certainly a defining feature of the modern space age, where cooperation has replaced competition as the main driving force.
As Beck explained to ArsTechnica in an interview before the launch:
“The whole point of the program is to get everybody looking up at the star, but also past the star into the Universe, and reflect about the fact that we’re one species, on one planet. This is not necessarily part of the Rocket Lab program; it’s more of a personal program. It’s certainly consistent with our goal of trying to democratize space.”
Like the Electron rocket, the Humanity Sphere is made of carbon fiber materials and it’s surface consists of 65 highly-reflective panels. Once it reaches an orbit of 300 by 500 km (186 by 310 mi), it will spend the next nine months there reflecting the light of the Sun back to Earth. Whether or not it will be visible to the naked eye remains to be seen, but Rocket Lab is confident it will be.
According to Beck, the sphere will be more visible than a Iridium flare, which are easily spotted from the surface. These flares occur when the solar panels or antennae of an Iridium satellite reflect sunlight in orbit. “Most people will be familiar with the Iridium flares, and this has got much, much more surface area than an Iridium flare,” Beck said. “In theory, it will be easy to find.”
Beck got the idea for the project from talking to people about where they live. In his experience, people tend to think of their locality or nationality when they think of home. Whereas many people he had spoken to were aware that they lived on planet Earth, they were oblivious to where the Earth resided in the Solar System or the Universe at large. In this respect, the Humanity Sphere is meant to encourage people to look and think beyond.
As he states on the website the company created for the Humanity Sphere:
“For millennia, humans have focused on their terrestrial lives and issues. Seldom do we as a species stop, look to the stars and realize our position in the universe as an achingly tiny speck of dust in the grandness of it all.
“Humanity is finite, and we won’t be here forever. Yet in the face of this almost inconceivable insignificance, humanity is capable of great and kind things when we recognize we are one species, responsible for the care of each other, and our planet, together. The Humanity Star is to remind us of this.
“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. My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.
“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.”
The Humanity Star can also be tracked via the website. As of the penning of this article, it is moving south of the equator and should be visible to those living along the west coast of South America. So if you live in Colombia, Peru or Chile, look to the western skies and see if you can’t spot this moving star. After passing south over Antarctica, it will reemerge in the night skies over Central Asia.
Without a doubt, the Humanity Sphere is an inspired creation, and one which is in good company. Who can forget the “Blue Marble” picture snapped by the Apollo 17 astronauts, or Voyager 1‘s “pale blue dot” photo? And even for those who are too young to have witnessed it, the images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the Moon still serve to remind us of how far we’ve come, and how much still awaits us out there.