In certain circles it is not uncommon to trip across the debate “Is graffiti art?” You can also find scads about it online if you are so inclined (Google). However, the debate doesn’t come up all that often in the context of conversations about satellites or space… until now.
Earlier this month a company named Rocket Lab launched some previously announced satellites from New Zealand. They also launched an unannounced satellite, and more notably, one with no explicit scientific or technical purpose. That satellite is The Humanity Star, and it’s a carbon fiber geodesic sphere about 3 feet in diameter that is designed to reflect the sun in order to be one of the most visible objects in the night sky from anywhere on Earth for about nine months. Here’s an article about the satellite, its sponsor, Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck, as well as the message that it is intended to convey.
Space-Spotting: How To See Humanity Star and Other Objects in Orbit (Lisa Ruth Rand, Popular Mechanics)
If you want to see the satellite, it will be easiest to see at dawn and dusk because the Sun’s light from below the horizon will illuminate the satellite against the darker sky. There is also a tracker on The Humanity Star web site.
The satellite was intended to be a relatively short-lived statement of inspiration, but it has created quite a stir. Here’s a one minute video about the satellite, its creator and the controversy surrounding the whole enterprise.
The story behind the controversy is that Caleb A. Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia, published a scathing rant about the satellite via Scientific American.
Twinkle, Twinkle, Satellite Vermin (Caleb A. Scharf, Scientific American)
Scharf’s post was picked up and echoed by other news outlets. Here are some examples.
Space Gets an Artificial Star. Astronomers Ask: Do We Need More? (Christina Caron, New York Times)
Company shoots shiny orb into orbit and angers astronomers over space graffiti. (Ben Guarino, Washtington Post)
The truth is that if you dig deep enough, there’s probably more controversy about this than is warrented. First, while “light pollution” is a serious issue (worthy of an entire future post), this particular case of it is a temporary and spurious scapegoat. The same is true about the accusation that it is contributing to the problem of “space junk” since this modest little missionary is designed to follow modern protocols for such things and plunge to its own pre-calculated death upon the conclusion of its short life.
Interestingly, while the satellite probably didn’t deserve the bum rap it got, it’s already served a higher purpose. It’s brought attention to the serious, real problem of the massive amount of “space junk” that’s floating around up there now and the bevy of stuff that is likely to join the ruckus in the near future.
Here’s a two minute visualization generated by Stuart Grey using tracking data from Space-Track.org that shows how space debris has propagated over the last half century.
Of course, the problem of “space junk” in not a new and shiny problem. It has been a growing concern in scientific and engineering circles for decades. Here’s a recent PSA from the ESA and another from the BBC that explains the growing threat that “space junk” poses.
Here’s a fantastic article from the Washington Post that also provides more specifics about controversial subjects like “collisional cascading impacts” a.k.a. Kessler Syndrome (Wikipedia) and the CubeSats that are especially worrying to some space scientists and engineers.
Thousands of tiny satellites are about to go into space and possibly ruin it forever (Avi Selk, Washington Post)
Whatever you think of it, The Humanity Star is definitely serving as a harbinger of things to come in the media over the next few months. That is because the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is about to plunge to it’s death. There is still plenty of uncertainty and controversy about it’s descent and impact. The one thing that is certain is that it will be coming down soon, and that it will be serving as grist for many media mills between now and then.
If you are so inclined, you can track the reentry yourself at SATFLARE. You can track other objects there, too. Space.com also maintains a site where you can track the Latest News About Space Junk and Orbital Debris.
If you think satellites are cool in general, then you might want to check out an app that Google Earth and Analytic Graphics Inc. made to track the positions of satellites around Earth. You can find out about the app on this blog post and get the Satellite Viewer app on their site.
Finally, there’s even a whole site dedicated to Satellite News!