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    What’s the ‘Humanity Star’? For some astronomers, a nuisance

    Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck is pictured with his "Humanity Star" in Auckland, New Zealand.
    Rocket Lab/Associated Press/File
    Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck is pictured with his "Humanity Star" in Auckland, New Zealand.

    The vision was to bring the world together, getting people from all walks of life to look toward the night sky and ponder the vast complexities of outer space, as the twinkling object briefly soared by above them.

    The Humanity Star, a highly reflective satellite that was rocketed into space from New Zealand on Jan. 21, is set to orbit the planet for much of this year, bouncing the sun’s rays back to the Earth’s surface.

    But some astronomers and astrophysicists are calling the launch of the carbon-fiber, geodesic sphere, built by Rocket Lab, a private company in California, a bit of a nuisance.


    According to the Associated Press, the large “mirror ball,” which has been likened to a space-bound disco ball and can be tracked online, has a nine-month lifespan. After that, it will burn up as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

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    While it’s live, Peter Beck, the company’s founder and chief executive, wants the object to drudge up some existential thoughts.

    “Seldom do we as a species stop, look to the stars, and realize our position in the universe as an achingly tiny speck of dust in the grandness of it all,” he said in a statement on the company’s website. “Everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth in the night sky.”

    Although Beck’s sentiment is certainly introspective, some experts in the field of astronomy and astrophysics have remained skeptical, calling the artistic move a possible distraction — or even impediment — for actual space research.

    “A bright light — he says that it will be the brightest object in the sky, by which I assume he means as bright as Jupiter or Venus — moving rapidly across the sky is unnecessary light pollution,” Jeffrey Hughes, an astronomy professor at Boston University, said in an e-mail. “If it happens to pass through the field of view of a telescope making observations, it could really mess things up.”


    Hughes said Beck’s company “might have high ideals,” but “he’s not thought through what he’s doing.”

    Allyson Bieryla, an astronomer and manager of the astronomy lab and telescope at Harvard University, said her take on the Humanity Star was simple: We don’t need a human-made object shining back at us to remind us how awe-inspiring space can be.

    “There are plenty of natural beauties shining back at us” already, she said in a statement. “Scientists are trying to study and learn about the universe, and imposing a flashing object in our view is just an obstruction.”

    She said that if people want to take in our “human fingerprints” in space, they can look for the many satellites that actually serve a purpose — including the International Space Station — currently orbiting Earth.

    The satellite was launched along with a commercial payload of mini-satellites on the company’s Electron rocket. It will tour the planet in an elliptical pattern every 90 minutes, Rocket Lab said.


    Rocket Lab responded to the criticism on Saturday in The New Zealand Herald, nearly a week after its successful launch.

    “The whole point is to get people talking as a planet, and I think we’ve achieved that,” Beck told the newspaper. “If you’re going to do something big, some people will love it and some people won’t love it.”

    In a statement sent to the Globe Monday, Beck added that it’s been encouraging to see his concept ignite a discussion around the use of space, especially “at a time when we rely on it more than ever before.”

    Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said by his calculations the Humanity Star should pass over the United States sometime in March.

    He believes the company is exaggerating about how bright it will actually be, and also said concerns about it being a distraction for researchers may be overblown — at least for now.

    “I don’t think this satellite is really anything to worry about. It’s an advertising ploy more than anything else,” McDowell said. “What I don’t want to see is the sky full of fleets of satellites spelling out brand names.”

    Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.