Humanity Star: Bright Idea or Dark Sky Nemesis?

The launch of the Humanity Star has some fuming, others smiling, at the prospect of seeing a bright, new satellite. What do you think?

No satellites here, please

Satellites — like 'em, don't  like 'em, more are coming.
Bob King

Despite their reputation for wantonly ruining deep-sky images, a lot of skywatchers enjoy watching satellites. The public sure does. Whenever I'm out with a group of people, they're thrilled to see the International Space Station (ISS) pass over. Satellites make us look up. Once we're facing the sky, our curiosity stoked, we can't help noticing all the other good stuff up there: planets, stars, meteors.

Tapping into that sentiment, Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, created a meter-wide satellite named the Humanity Star and launched it into orbit from New Zealand on January 21st. The  geodesic sphere, made from carbon fiber with 65 highly reflective panels, spins rapidly, mimicking a disco ball. Because it reflects glints of sunlight back to Earth, viewers would expect to see a bright twinkling light crossing the sky during favorable passes.

"Orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes and visible from anywhere on the globe, the Humanity Star is designed to be a bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe," according to the Humanity Star website.

With an orbital inclination of 82.9° and a brightness advertised as rivaling the Iridium satellites, the object is expected to be visible from almost anywhere on the planet. Great news, right? Well, it depends. Not long after the launch became public knowledge, a tsunami of comments from amateur and professional astronomers hit Twitter, many critical of placing more "space garbage" in orbit to litter the sky and ruin astronomical observations.

Cosmic connection of disco inferno infuriation

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck and his new satellite, "The Humanity Star."
Rocket Lab

Yet based on information from the popular satellite site Heavens Above, we all might do well to step back and take a breath. The Humanity Star won't be visible from most Northern Hemisphere locations until early March. Even then, as I run the predictions, there won't a single pass brighter than magnitude 4.6. Most were in the mid-sixes and sevens. Despite the great expectations, the disco ball might only be seen by dedicated satellite watchers, not the average global citizen like my neighbor Frank. On the other hand . . . according to a recent posting on the SeeSat-L home page, the folks at Rocket Lab are estimating a magnitude of 0.7. That's bright but nowhere near the brilliance of a typical ISS pass.

You can also keep track of the satellite on Humanity Star's page. Go to thehumanitystar.com, click Track (upper right menu) and type in your city in the Find My Location box. In Heavens Above, there's a clickable link to the object under the Satellites column on the left side of the home page. Perhaps because it has yet to be deployed, observations of the object are as rare as Martian canals. I've yet to hear of a definitive sighting either with the naked eye or binoculars.

It's still early, and Humanity Star's orbit or other circumstances could change, but the way things look for the moment, it will neither fulfill its intended purpose nor tick off satellite haters. Either way, this Saturday Night Fever totem will burn up in the atmosphere sometime this fall. Beck is considering further iterations of the satellite for future launches, and therein lies a caution. Rocket Lab and other new companies specialize in launching small satellites relatively inexpensively. As those costs continue to drop, it won't be long before there's enough momentum for everyone from breweries to real estate companies to advertise their products and services with a "bright light" in the sky.

Mayak

An artist's conception of Mayak in orbit.
CosmoMayak

Witness the Mayak satellite launched in 2016 that was funded through a Kickstarter set up by a Russian ad agency and partly funded by banking startup RocketBank. I foresee school groups and artists teaming up with sponsors to loft all manner of aesthetic and educational satellites in the coming years. Indeed, the future is now. Artist artist Trevor Paglen, with help from his Kickstarter effort and in cooperation with the Nevada Museum of Art, may soon launch the first satellite sent up "as a purely artistic gesture." Called Orbital Reflector, it's a balloon that inflates into a giant diamond from a brick-sized satellite scheduled for launch aboard a SpaceX rocket this spring.

Those prospects may either make you grit your teeth or smile at human ingenuity, but there's no question, this is where we're headed. Both the Orbital Reflector and Humanity Star creators emphasize that their sole purpose is to get us to look up, to use satellites as portals into a deeper appreciation of the universe and our place in it. But let's be honest. We already have that in the ISS, not to mention dozens of other satellites bright enough to see with the naked eye. Predictions of their visibility are all over the Web and built into phone apps.

ISS showpiece

A firefly flashes during an ISS pass on July 28, 2017.
Bob King

Our insatiable appetite for the new and love of pushing the envelope are rooted in curiosity. Can you fault that? While you're mulling that over, I've got more sanguine satellite news. The ISS, presently ferrying six souls around the Earth every 90 minutes, has returned to the evening sky for many Northern Hemisphere locations (dawn for the Southern Hemisphere) and will remain in view through about mid-February. If you haven't seen it yet or just want to share the sight with family and friends, you can easily get pass predictions at Heavens Above. Head over, find your city, then click the ISS link for a table showing times, altitudes, etc. If you click on a particular date, a map pops up showing the ISS's path across the sky.

You can also use NASA's Spot the Station website. Type in your town's name, then click the yellow circle to zoom into the pinned locations. Click a blue pin for sighting opportunities.

Close dance, Act II

Mars and Beta (β) Scorpii will be in close conjunction at dawn on February 1st.
Stellarium

So much for the evening sky. Morning skywatchers can unwrap yet another Mars candy bar. On February 1st, the Red Planet passes just 24′ south of the beautiful double star Beta (β) Scorpii. They'll be only a little farther apart than Mars and Jupiter were in their recent conjunction. With the naked eye, the scene will look like an imminent collision, while a scope will reveal Mars as a tiny gibbous kernel alongside bright Beta and its 4.6-magnitude companion 13.6″ to the northeast.

28 thoughts on “Humanity Star: Bright Idea or Dark Sky Nemesis?

  1. Jean LoupJean Loup

    Hola Bob, my opinion:
    not only are we putting more trash into orbit, we also pollute our atmosphere with every take-off. I understand satellites for weather studies, following huracanes & other scientific searches or predictions (althought weather predictions are notoriously wrong most of times). Must be a new NASA way of recollecting money (to make the World go round ¿maybe?).
    ABRAZOS from México.

  2. Graham-Wolf

    Hi Bob

    As a Kiwi, I have mixed feelings about Peter’s recent “Humanity Star”.

    I hugely applaud Peter’s conservative approach and careful attention to technical detail.
    Whilst his ability to place a satellite in Earth orbit on only his SECOND ever attempt, is incredible, I’m barely lukewarm about his putting an “oversized disco ball” in space, to clutter up an already cluttered – up low-earth-orbit area. The ISS is in this zone, and so are any human space launches passing through this metallic space “mine-field”.

    Peter’s disco-ball is however, set up to come down in a few more weeks… he had already planned it that way, well in advance, so…. we should really respect and acknowledge his decency in doing that. I understand that Peter has some small satellites that he put into orbit on this recent launch, there was some spare payload capacity left over, and the disco ball was a quirky after-thought! In my opinion, Peter wanted to max out his payload to make sure he could deliver the full goods…. if so, then he sure succeeded there too!

    Peter has certainly put NZ on the space-map, showing the world that is a real international contender, and not a fly-by-nighter. Just look at his PR shot in your story Bob…. it has “Mr serious” written all over it.

    I heartily wish Peter all the best commercially. He wasn’t really taken seriously overseas, in the past. He’s really put his money where his mouth is, and he prefers to let his actions do his talking for him. I certainly don’t hear anyone laughing at him now! And his launch pad is sooooo far South of the Equator, so he has other technical issues, that he’s clearly worked on.

    If you’re reading this Peter…. well done!
    You’ve slapped a few of the “big boys” in the face, for sure.
    Peter Beck is tomorrow’s man… today.
    GO BECK, GO!

    Graham W. Wolf:- 46 South, Dunedin, NZ.

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Hi Graham,

      I also have mixed feelings. So many people enjoy satellites, and they really do focus an interest on the night sky. I find myself looking forward to bright, new ones but I’m concerned about the spread of satellites as advertising devices.

      1. chiayk

        Hi Bob :

        I finally got the Humanity star at magnitude 5.1 near Canopus last night from indoor. If you have a means for uploading the image here I will. At this magnitude, it is far from light pollution the sky

        The single flashes were only made apparent by the Sonotaco UFOcapture software.

        Rgds
        ChiaYK
        Singapore

  3. Corey RueckheimCorey Rueckheim

    There are much more important things to worry about than whether or not a satellite ruins one sub-exposure of an astrophotography session. Take light pollution, for example, which can ruin the entire night sky! Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if that “ruined” sub-exposure became the highlight of the night: “Hey, look at the photo I took of the Humanity Star!”

    For the most part, I think launchers have been doing a good job regulating their “orbital behavior.” Mr. Beck made sure that his object won’t stay up there for long, and I don’t see anyone else wanting to be the person who launches a “nuisance” into the sky either, so I think self-regulation is going to continue to work well. If it doesn’t, I imagine that regulations will be put into place to enforce good behavior. (There is always the chance that one “rotten apple” ruins the fun for everyone!)

    As for myself, I’m really looking forward to seeing Humanity Star!

      1. Bob KingBob King Post author

        Grem,

        That’s true, but there are conflicting reports on just how bright it will be. Oddly, the satellite observing group has been very quiet with no reports. Makes me wonder if Humanity Star’s even been deployed yet.

  4. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    I am not a serious satellite watcher, but I do keep track of ISS flyovers. If it’s a high pass and the weather is clear I’ll go outside to watch and wave to the astronauts.

    I haven’t seen any evidence that Mr. Beck’s disco ball satellite is going to get people to look up and suddenly realize our place in the universe. While a space station the size of football field flies overhead shining brighter that Venus, most everybody walking down my street is staring obliviously at their phone. The people who are already looking up don’t need another satellite to excite their wonder, and the people who need to start looking up won’t notice the satellite.

    I share the concern about ever more numerous and bothersome advertising satellites competing for our already overtaxed attention. Self-regulation has never discouraged the greedy from making a quick buck nor the boastful from self-promotion, and I don’t see how it would prevent this problem.

    P.S. — Mars has been moving really fast through the head of Scorpius! I’m getting excited about the opposition.

  5. james-ball

    I totally agree that light pollution is much worse of a problem than this will ever be. Maybe we need regulations that will allow these types of launches but also include regulations on lighting designs to reduce light pollution. It would only make sense, since if you want people to look at and see what you put in orbit, they have to have clear enough skies to actually see it.

  6. Graham-Wolf

    Comments noted, and acknowledged.

    Anthony:- I’m looking forward to the Mars Opposition, too! Peter’s Humanity Star will probably never get brighter than Mv 6, I’ve seen ISS, and those solar panels at the right sun angle are so many times brighter. I also saw Mir on it’s last half dozen orbits before re-entry, and that was a bright fast ,moving object for sure.

    Corey:- your thoughts also resonated with me. If we can safely de-orbit dead satellites to de-clutter low-earth obit “minefields”, that would be very helpful. I held my breath that Mir would not trash any cities… it hit the ocean near Tonga/Fiji.

    Regards to all out there

    Graham W. Wolf at 46 South Dunedin, NZ.

  7. philip-gardner

    There is a curious droid youtube clip on possible implications of increasing space junk and a theory, with a name that escapes me at the moment, that there will come a time when there is so much space junk moving at such high velocity that space vehicles will have difficulty surviving long enough to place further satellites into orbit? PG

    1. Mircea-Pteancu

      The name ”Humanity” of this project is wrong ,what they intend to do is inhuman.
      This could be targeted to get enough public attention to win contracts with companies for commercial advertisments in outer space.
      All they need is an accepted precedent and will follow countless marketing satellites launches of all shapes , brightness and colors.

  8. Fabrice MoratFabrice Morat

    Dear Bob,

    I prefer not to read your article because it would make me angry. Just a thing : i love your sticker…

    Fabrice, always without a mobile phone.

  9. grem44

    At a reported maximum 5.1 magnitude on Heavens Above I doubt if any will see it without binoculars.
    If that is correct it defeats the purpose of putting it into orbit and a waste of money for no required result.

  10. Frank-ReedNavigation.comFrank-ReedNavigation.com

    Misguided complaints aside… Some of the predicted magnitudes have been based on an assumption of a typical satellite. A sphere in LEO with normal illumination would not be very bright. But specular flashes would be dramatically brighter. Assuming the satellite deployed properly, did not break up, and has not already re-entered (all possible!), we can work out the apparent magnitude of the flashes by comparing with the angular area of the Sun.

    First, we need the size of one of the reflective facets. It’s a bit hard to judge from the photos, but let’s figure that each one is equivalent to a circular reflector with a radius of 20cm). These surfaces have very high reflectivity so it’s fair to assume that each acts visually like a small extracted patch of the Sun’s surface (there is no decrease in surface brightness with distance). In an average pass at high angle above the horizon, the range to the satellite would be about 400km. Take 20cm, divide by 400km, then multiply by 206265 to get angular radius. The result is 0.10 seconds of arc. Of course, the Sun’s full angular radius is just about 960 seconds of arc. So this is smaller by a factor of 9600 in radius or 92 million in area. Let’s bump that up to a factor of 100 million to account for a little geometric foreshortening –and to make the math more transparent. Every factor of 100 is identical to a 5.0 decrease in apparent magnitude. That factor of 100 million is four factors of 100 amounting to a decrease in brightness of four five-magnitude steps or 20 magnitudes (100*100*100*100 –> 5+5+5+5). Add that onto the Sun’s apparent magnitude and the result is -6.7. Note that MINUS sign. So these flashes should still be brighter than Venus. Will it “look” that bright? There’s a perceptual issue here. If you see a flash to magnitude -6 but it lasts for only a hundredth of a second, what does the human eye perceive? It should still be an impressive flash, but we might not perceive it as “brighter than Venus”.
    Another interesting possibility is that flashes from the Moon (at apparent magn.-12.6) would be around magnitude 7.4, easily visible in binoculars, so it might be worth looking for it in the middle of the night when the Moon is bright in two weeks.

    Frank Reed
    ReedNavigation.com (classes in celestial navigation, sometimes using artificial satellites…)

    1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

      Frank, your otherwise apposite equation is lacking one term: the probability that any given person is looking up at the sky rather than staring at their phone. In my neighborhood, that would be about 0.005.

      But seriously, I do appreciate the math.

      1. Frank-ReedNavigation.comFrank-ReedNavigation.com

        Sure. That’s very true. The probability that anyone will see this flashing satellite by chance, by accident, without planning ahead is very close to zero. For that matter, even for folks like you and me, who are looking at the sky regularly and with interest and knowledge, it’s very rare to see any specific satellite by chance. Of course, it’s not unusual at all to see some unspecified satellite (whose identity you can look up later) on any clear night, especially in those months around the summer solstice when satellites here in mid-northern latitudes are illuminated for hours after sunset, but how many times have you seen an Iridium flash without planning ahead? How many times have you seen the ISS without expecting it in advance? How many times have you seen one of those very cool NOSS triangles flying overhead? For me, I can count on one hand (for each case!) those accidental observations. But knowing what to expect regarding the brightness, this “Humanity Star” is definitely something worth watching for, and it is, in fact, something that we can encourage casual observers to look for (assuming the satellite did deploy, didn’t break up, and hasn’t already re-entered!). And, I hate to say it, but the reason they will have that opportunity to see this sparkling satellite, if there are genuine opportunities ahead next month for those in northern mid-latitudes, is mostly because they will have access to apps and other tools on those oh-so-addictive smartphones! It has NEVER been easier to track satellites, and the fun and challenge of it has NEVER been more accessible for “average” skywatchers. Even though the odds of looking up are probably reduced significantly these days, there are still great benefits to backyard astronomy that come from the networked supercomputers we carry around in our pockets. They’re not the enemy. 🙂

        Frank Reed
        ReedNavigation.com
        (anyone see me on “StarTalk” some weeks ago?? Or was I the only one watching?!)

        1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

          I get daily emails from calsky.com with alerts for upcoming iridium flares and ISS flyovers during the next three days. I make note of the times of favorable opportunities. No need for a smartphone.

          I think the toxic addictive effects of smartphones outweigh their benefits. They’re making us stupid and dissociated from our actual, real-time, physical environment.

          During the first partial phase of the recent lunar eclipse, I walked by a group of three young men who were sitting on a park bench engrossed in conversation. I told them that if they looked up they could see a lunar eclipse. One of them said, “Really, when does it start?” while pulling out his phone.

  11. Robert-Pothier

    Another piece of space junk thats just what the world needs. Instead of wasting money on more space junk lets invest money into removing it. Im sure there would be money in the salvage of some defunct satellites .

  12. chiayk

    Humanity Star at mag 5.1 was detected near Canopus per Heavens-above prediction here in Singapore shortly before it entered earth shadow.

    I was using a f0.95 avenir 25mm aspheric lens with Watec 902H2 ultimate on tripod from indoor. I hit the record button to get a trailed stars field and the singly flashes stood out.

    It was far from rivalling Iridium flares or good ISS pass

    rgds
    ykchia
    Singapore

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Chiayk,

      Thank you very much for your observation! Humanity Star is just now coming into view for many places in the northern hemisphere. I’ve checked magnitudes at HA and it falls within the range of your observation. Do you have a link to your photo?

  13. Joe StieberJoe Stieber

    I had my first opportunity for a sighting earlier this evening, 09-March-2018, about 20 minutes before the end of astronomical twilight. Surprisingly, the weather was ideal such that Venus and Mercury were a stunning and lovely sight to unaided eyes after sunset. Anyway, Heavens-Above, SkySafari and Cal-Sky all showed a path that would come close to Sirius, Procyon and Pollux, so I had some reference points. However, it was difficult to find as the ordinary satellite track was not visible to unaided eyes in this suburban location (but relatively dark for the suburbs), although the track was ultimately seen with 10×50 binoculars (magnitude 6 or so?).

    To the unaided eye, it blinked at a rate from half to two seconds (I.e., not at regular intervals), perhaps around magnitude 2. The trick was to get a fix on a blink and estimate the direction and speed of movement to drop the binoculars on it. It was necessary to see it in binoculars to be certain it wasn’t an aircraft. I first spotted it with unaided eyes near Sirius about 7:12 pm EST and got the binoculars on it near Pollux about 7:13 pm.

    It was unlike any satellite I’ve seen before. In particular, the light variation was not like an Iridium flare or a tumbling satellite. It literally blinked with no sloping rise or decay in brightness. On the whole, somewhat underwhelming, and if this was a typical pass, not much of a threat from the light pollution aspect. Certainly not something a casual observer would see without a good bit of luck.

      1. Bob KingBob King Post author

        Hi Joe,
        Great report! I can confirm your observation with my own made this evening (March 10.1 UT) when I picked up Humanity Star flashing airplane-like west of the Pleiades. The satellite moved fairly quickly and the flashes were extremely brief. Once seen in binoculars I picked it up flashing with the naked eye. Brightest flashes reached mag. 2.

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