Shimmering Disco Ball Launched Into Space By A Kiwi Millionaire

It's called "Humanity Star", and it's supposed to remind us of our puny place in the universe. Barely brighter than other chunks of metal we've put in space, and with an achingly short six-month lifespan, the giant "disco ball" is more of a publicity stunt than anything else.

Image: Rocket Lab

On Sunday, California-based Rocket Lab launched its second Electron two-stage rocket from a launch pad in New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula. In addition to three CubeSats, the rocket - with the revealing name Still Testing - delivered Humanity Star, the pet project of the company's CEO Peter Beck.

Measuring 1m wide, the carbon-fibre geodesic sphere is fitted with 65 reflective panels. It should spin rapidly and reflect the Sun's light such that it's visible from Earth's surface at night. It will be bright, but not distractingly bright, exhibiting a luminosity just slightly greater than stars and other artificial satellites. The giant disco ball will circle the globe every 90 minutes, travelling around 9180m/s, or 27 times the speed of sound.

So pretty. (Image: Rocket Lab)

Beck's hope is that it will be the brightest object in the night sky - a perpetual reminder that we're living "on a rock in a giant universe". The CEO hates the comparison to a disco ball, saying it represents something greater - a kind of "focal point" for humanity to think about larger issues, such as climate change and resource shortages. Reading his essay "Under One Sky" at the Humanity Ball website, you'd think Beck's big bright ball is going to save the world:

Humanity is finite, and we won't be here forever. Yet in the face of this almost inconceivable insignificance, humanity is capable of great and kind things when we recognise we are one species, responsible for the care of each other, and our planet, together.

The Humanity Star is to remind us of this. 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. My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.

Yeah, we're pretty sure the ball won't have this unifying effect on humanity, and few of us will be lucky enough to even see it. Light pollution sucks these days, and the mirror ball will be making select appearances over the planet's surface. New Zealand and Australia will have the best view over the next six weeks, followed by North America in March. You can track Humanity Star's progress here.

Humanity Ball's current position. (Image: Humanity Star/Rocket Lab/Google)

Moreover, this ball has a painfully brief six-month life span - so we better not develop an attachment. After that, it will get sucked up into Earth's atmosphere and burn to a crisp on re-entry.

Beck hopes to launch more Humanity Stars in the future, but he's waiting to see how the public responds to this ball, and to assess the cost. Most assuredly, Beck will also be evaluating the extent to which this publicity stunt serves the interests of his fledgling rocket company. In light of its most recent launch, Rocket Lab says it's now a major step closer to ferrying commercial satellites. What better way to advertise his company than with a glittering ball in space.

[Washington Post, BBC]

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