Is This Shiny Satellite Sky Art or ‘Space Graffiti’?

A spinning, silver geodesic sphere reminiscent of the “Dancing With the Stars” mirror ball trophy is moving through space and blinking as it orbits Earth every 90 minutes.

Known as the Humanity Star, it was built to reflect the sun’s light and “encourage people to consider their place in the universe,” according to its website.

Some astronomers are not pleased.

Although the object “sounds like jolly nice fun,” it also “fills me with a big dose of dread,” Caleb A. Scharf, director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center at Columbia University, wrote in Scientific American.

Space is already polluted by artificial light, making it more difficult for astronomers to monitor cosmic events, he wrote.

The Humanity Star was created by Peter Beck, the founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab, an American company that last week launched the satellite along with several other minisatellites on a small rocket from its private launchpad in New Zealand.

“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,” Mr. Beck wrote on the project’s website.

Of course, as some scientists pointed out on Twitter, looking at the moon or the stars could accomplish the same thing.

Rocket Lab did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Humanity Star, made of carbon fiber and reflective panels, has been called a disco ball, space garbage and a Dungeons and Dragons die. Michael E. Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, said it was “space graffiti.”

But what the company has accomplished — sending multiple satellites into orbit on the second try from its own launchpad — is something experts have called unprecedented.

“Up to now it has been government agencies or private groups using government infrastructure. Even SpaceX leases from NASA,” Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at Australian National University, told The Financial Times.

In essence, the company has made it easier and cheaper to launch minisatellites, so could space become even more cluttered?

“That’s the concern,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a phone interview on Saturday.

Although Dr. McDowell said he thought “the fuss over this one is a bit exaggerated,” he said that space was becoming increasingly crowded with bright satellites and that there had been talk of launching thousands of satellites.

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,” Dr. McDowell said. “And so that’s sort of part of the concern that people have — that there needs to be some respect for the dark sky.”

Dr. McDowell said the Humanity Star satellite was going to be “decently visible,” not as bright as the moon, but comparable to the brightest stars.

It will orbit the Earth at an altitude lower than the International Space Station, which is more than 200 miles above the Earth’s surface.

About nine months from now, the Humanity Star will degrade and burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, Rocket Lab said. That will prevent it from joining the estimated 7,500 tons of space debris in Earth’s orbit.

“It’s sort of like a self-cleaning oven,” Dr. McDowell said.

The shining ball will be visible from anywhere on Earth as it passes overhead, the company said, with an online tracker showing its progress. It won’t be visible to the United States until mid-March, Dr. McDowell said.

In the meantime, anyone interested in spotting a shiny man-made object in the sky can check out the International Space Station. It also reflects sunlight and is visible to the naked eye. NASA’s website explains where and how to see it.

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/28/science/rocket-lab-humanity-star.html by CHRISTINA CARON