Last weekend, the upstart space company Rocket Lab successfully launched three small commercial satellites from its launchpad in New Zealand, as well as a fourth, more surprising piece of cargo. Rocket Lab announced on Wednesday that a carbon fiber geodesic sphere measuring about 3 feet in diameter had secretly hitched a ride aboard the rocket.
While the commercial satellites were build for tasks such as Earth imaging, weather monitoring, and ship tracking, the fourth satellite—evocatively named “Humanity Star”—serves a very different purpose. Humanity Star is the brainchild of Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck, who hopes the reflective sphere will inspire goodwill in a world caught up in geopolitical tension. The company claims the new satellite will be “the brightest thing in the night sky,” and clearly visible to the naked eye as it circles the globe every 90 minutes, traversing a broad path across the ground below.
How to Spot It
The satellite does not emit its own light. Instead, it bears 65 faces polished to a high shine that should reflect flashes of sunlight as the sphere tumbles through space.
It will be easiest to view at dawn and dusk, when the Sun’s light from below the horizon illuminates the satellite against a darkened sky. During the daytime, the Humanity Star will be washed out by sunlight. During the night, when the sun is on the opposite side of the Earth, no light will reach the object.
Rocket Lab has set up a providing information on where and when observers might view the Humanity Star during its estimated nine months on orbit. Beck expects that those who look up during dawn and dusk and catch a glimpse of what looks like a tiny, moving star, will gain a new sense of global unity and cosmic wonder (though some astronomers aren't crazy about his vision, calling the Humanity Star "").
The Dawn of Satwatching
Humanity Star will be the first satellite designed with the sole purpose of building international unity through visual sightings. But it joins a long lineage of shiny space things meant to be seen from the ground.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world by sending an “artificial moon,” Sputnik, into outer space. Following the guidance of local newspapers, Americans looked up into the autumn sky to see a tiny star moving through the familiar constellations and planets. The Sputnik Moment has become part of a national mythology celebrated in memoirs, casual recollections, and even .
However, that tiny moving star was not Sputnik itself, but rather the much larger, empty core of the rocket that sent it into orbit. Soviet engineers knew the satellite would be too small to be seen from the ground without special equipment, so they rigged up the rocket core with reflective prisms to catch extra sunlight at dawn and dusk. Sputnik or not, that faint speck directly confirmed to ordinary people that the Soviets had reached space first.
Three years later, the United States launched the first of many inflatable satellites, or “.” The Mylar-encased Echo satellite could bounce radio signals across broad distances—and at 100 feet in diameter, the sat was visible to the naked eye. People in the suburbs hosted Echo-watching parties, and scientists conducted radio astronomy experiments using the second Echo satelloon. NASA had provided a free gift for amateur observers and specialists alike by launching an easily visible object into space that anyone in the world could enjoy. The typically combative Soviet press even described Echo II in glowing terms as the “Friendship Sputnik.”
What Else To See Today
Today, the Humanity Star joins a number of large, shiny objects in orbit that interested viewers may spot from their homes—in some cases, even from light-polluted cities—if they know where and when to look.
The Humanity Star website cites so-called “” as an inspiration for the new satellite’s design. When a shiny surface of a satellite reflects sunlight for a brief moment, a bright flash can be seen from the ground. The Iridium communications satellite constellation, with its large, metal panels, provides some of the most common instances of this phenomenon. Several websites, such as , tell you when and where you might be able to catch an Iridium flare.
One of the most easily viewed satellites is also a haven for human passengers. While the Humanity Star spans just 3 feet across, the International Space Station is the size of a football field. On clear nights, the station looks like a speeding planet, distinguishable from passing airplanes by its speed and lack of blinking lights. Sign up for NASA’s and the agency will send e-mail or text alerts when the ISS will be visible from your area.
Launching big shiny space things isn’t just for state space programs anymore. The Humanity Star may soon be joined by artist Trevor Paglen’s planned , a crowdfunded endeavor that boosters claimed would be “the first satellite to exist purely as an artistic gesture.” In 2015, the Planetary Society launched the first version of its , whose 344-square-foot Mylar sails () reflected enough light to be . In the summer of 2017, the first Russian crowdfunded satellite, named Mayak (Russian for “beacon of light”) reached orbit, but its four-square-meter sail .
These are just the objects that are meant to be seen from the ground. Some hobbyists enjoy tracking objects that are rather more elusive. Amateur astronomers have , and in recent years have made a sport of identifying and studying secret government space missions, like the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane. The community tracks several hundred “dark” satellites, and some hope to use their skills to learn more about the recently launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
For those less interested in uncovering state secrets, the Humanity Star should provide yet another fun way to experience the wonder of space flight. While a field of inflatable satellites, Iridium panels, and the International Space Station have preceded the little carbon sphere, perhaps right now the world could use another Friendship Sputnik winking at us through the darkness.