Private rocketeers snuck their own “star” into orbit, and it will be visible from earth

One of these two has been shot into space.
One of these two has been shot into space.
Image: Rocket Lab
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When Mike Melvill piloted the first private vehicle to reach space, he enjoyed a hidden bag of M&Ms in microgravity. Elon Musk put an enormous wheel of cheese in the first SpaceX Dragon spacecraft that took to orbit, inspired by Monty Python. And, when Rocket Lab’s Electron reached orbit for the first time on Jan. 21, space-pointed radar noticed a mysterious object in space alongside the three satellites it launched.

Turns out Rocket Lab has launched the world’s first global strobe light. Called the Humanity Star, it’s a one-meter-tall carbon-fiber geodesic sphere made up of 65 highly-reflective panels. In space, it will spin, reflecting sun’s light back to earth and creating a flashing effect in the sky. The company claims it will be “the brightest object in the night sky,” visible from earth as a kind of shooting star as it orbits every 90 minutes. At press time, it was too cloudy to see the sky, but you should be able to track it on this website.

Kerri Cahoy, a MIT professor in astronatics, and her colleagues looked into these claims for Quartz, using public data about the satellite’s orbit and its size. Many satellites—including the International Space Station—can be seen with the naked eye when the sun strikes their solar panels or other reflective materials at the right angle.

“Yes, it can definitely be the brightest object in the night sky, if it catches the light ‘just right,’ and if it’s tumbling fast enough that should happen pretty often in all directions,” 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.

In time, the orbit will tilt, making it visible at dawn and dusk to almost the entire world, provided that the observer and the satellite are in the right place at the right time. A Japanese satellite with a similar design has been in space since 1986, Clark says, and it is visible with the naked eye from outside major cities, but isn’t particularly bright. Accounting for a lower orbit and larger mirrors, the Humanity Star could be brighter than most stars in the sky, though not as bright as the planets. Other design features could make it even brighter than that. In a best-case scenario, it could “be bright enough during the day that even the tropics will get to see it,” Clark says.

“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.

The proof of concept-slash-art project is intended as more than a publicity stunt for Rocket Lab.

“No matter where you are in the world, or what is happening in your life, everyone will be able to see the Humanity Star in the night sky,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “For us to thrive and survive, we need to make big decisions in the context of humanity as a whole, not in the context of individuals, organizations or even nations. …We must come together as a species to solve the really big issues like climate change and resource shortages.”

If getting this important message across strikes you as extremely fancy littering—or just more space debris to worry about—know that the satellite will fall out of its orbit and burn up in the atmosphere within nine months. Rocket Lab says regulators in the US and New Zealand, where the rocket was launched, were aware of and approved the payload. The company told Quartz it flew another Humanity Star on its first test flight, which was lost after the rocket was destroyed.

Rocket Lab is dedicated to opening up access to space for private companies, and its debut orbital flight is a good sign for start-ups hoping to use satellite constellations as a vacuum for global data to feed machine-learning algorithms, or link computer systems around the world.

Cahoy, whose research focuses on advanced space technology, says that “lower cost access to space for small satellites is going to be transformational. Instead of having to wait around to go for a ride on something bigger, maybe to an orbit that’s not ideal, you could get to where you want to go on your own, or on a more reasonable cost.”

That applies equally to art and scientific projects alike. Sculptor Trevor Paglen unveiled plans for much larger reflective orbital artwork in 2017, but he is still waiting for it to ride as the secondary payload on a Falcon 9 rocket this year. In flying their own cultural spacecraft, Rocket Labs has also created a nice metaphor for their business plan.

Yet the firm’s ability to launch a secret satellite, albeit a warm-hearted joke, is a reminder that space is about to be severely disrupted. Rocket Lab has been working for a decade, and partnered closely with the US defense industry to get where it is today. But the trends that make its business model possible—cheap, miniaturized electronics; new manufacturing and design techniques that take advantage of cloud computing and 3-D printing; advances in carbon fiber materials—not just for humanist space start-ups, but for lots of groups, some not-so-savory. This has defense officials fretting about their ability to monitor what’s happening in space.

The first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was a mission with a similar effect: Its radio broadcast was designed to say “I’m here!” to the world, as well as provide data to scientists on the ground. It turned out to be a harbinger of a space race that created most of the space infrastructure we have now. Is the Humanity Star a herald a new age of commercial space flight and ambition? Look up, and we’ll see.