Astronomers angry over launch of ‘man-made star’

The giant disco ball was blasted into space by Rocket Lab to ‘encourage people to consider their place in the universe’
(Rocket Lab/AP)

Astronomers are enraged by a huge, bright new “man-made star” that now blocks out the light from real stars. Recently, New Zealand company Rocket Lab sent a huge disco ball into space that now acts as its own star. The company said that the light was “born of the desire to encourage people to consider their place in the universe and reflect on what’s important in their own lives and the lives of humanity as a species”, but numerous people have called it a PR stunt.

Now astronomers and other scientists have voiced their disgust with the plan, arguing that it will block out real stars and could contribute to making satellites far harder to launch. The huge space disco ball has been described as vandalism, graffiti and is “corrupting our idea of the cosmos”. The bright sphere is going to be flying around the Earth for nearly a year. The light it gives off is supposed to be part of its selling point, but astronomers complain that the brightness will get in the way of real stars and make doing actual science far more difficult.

“This is stupid, vandalises the night sky and corrupts our view of the cosmos,” wrote David Kipping, an astronomer from Columbia University. Others pointed out there was little need for an artificial star to provoke our wonder about the night sky – since there’s already plenty of objects up there to do that anyway. “Looking up at the moon and the planets in the night sky invokes similar feelings of wonder – why do we need this artificial disco ball in orbit,” asked planetary scientist Meg Schwamb.

What’s more, we’ve already launched artificial things that we can see in the night sky. The International Space Station can be seen with the naked eye when it’s visible, wrote astronomer Eric Mamajek. “It’s been done. Judging by the past couple decades, putting bright shiny things in orbit [doesn’t equal] awe and world peace.”

Astronomer Caleb A Scharf wrote in Scientific American that the light seemed a damning indictment of our times. People are gradually getting in the way of the natural rhythms of our world and denying themselves the chance to see the real night sky, he said, and this appeared to be a vision of that.

“It might have been cute to do this in the late 1950s, when Sputnik was fresh on our minds, when there was a genuine sense of wonder (and concern) about the future space age,” he wrote. “But in 2018 it feels to me like yet another invasion of my personal universe, another flashing item asking for eyeballs. It’s hogging some of that precious resource, the dark night sky, polluting part of the last great wilderness.” One astronomer, Alex Parker, shared a picture that demonstrated how problematic it can be if a bright satellite passes through your vision while you’re trying to actually do science.

Others made the point that as well as sending out annoying light, the disco ball will be taking up valuable space. Some made reference to the fact that vanity launches like this one were getting the world closer to Kessler syndrome: the more satellites head up into low-earth orbit, the more likely they will collide and destroy each other. At a certain point, there will be so many objects in the sky that the danger is too high and it might not be possible to launch satellites into low-earth orbit anymore.