On Saturday, the New Zealand space company Rocket Labs successfully sent a payload into orbit on its Electron rocket for the first time. Among the objects on board the rocket were two commercial satellites and the “Humanity Star,” a geodesic disco ball designed by Rocket Labs.
The Humanity Star is purely an art object, with no real purpose other than looking good. According to Rocket Lab, the “bright, blinking satellite” is visible to the naked eye at night and is “designed to encourage everyone to look up and consider our place in the universe.” Aside from the fact that there are several other bright, blinking satellites in orbit that are visible to the naked eye and actually serve a useful function, Rocket Lab’s gesture is a rare nod to poetry in an industry that is usually pragmatic to the point of fault.
Despite the company’s best intentions, not everyone is happy about the addition of a gleaming disco ball in the night sky.
Following the announcement of the mystery Rocket Lab payload, a number of astronomers and space enthusiasts took to Twitter to voice their concerns about the satellite. Ian Griffin, an astrophotographer and the director of New Zealand’s Otago Museum, called it an “act of environmental vandalism” and said New Zealand was the “first country to deliberately ‘tag’ the cosmos.”
Tim O’Brien, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Manchester asked “why don’t we all just celebrate the shared experience of seeing the International Space Station (or many other satellites), which actually has humans on it and is doing something useful, unlike this superfluous stunt.”
We don’t know whether Rocket Lab considered the effect its satellite might have on astronomy before launching the object. Motherboard reached out to the company for comment and will update this post if we hear back.
While it’s easy to dismiss these criticisms as a bunch of stuffy cynicism from scientists who’ve forgotten how to have fun, they do point to some serious issues in space law about how low earth orbit is used by private companies.
For starters, space debris is a serious and rapidly growing problem that lacks any practical solution and it’s hard to see the Humanity Star as anything more than some extra junk in space. According to Rocket Lab, the Humanity Star is on a decaying orbit and will burn up in the atmosphere within nine months, which should limit its impact on other orbital objects. To the company’s credit, this orbital period is a lot shorter than many other satellites in low earth orbit, but about on par with other cubesats that actually do have a scientific purpose.
Rocket Lab’s disco ball could also be construed as a marketing gimmick, raising the question about who has the right to advertise in space. The UN’s Moon Treaty prohibits any national actor from claiming territory on the Moon or other celestial bodies, but that’s about the closest thing to commercial regulations about space. So far, the handful of extant international space treaties about haven’t caught up to the times and conspicuously lack any clauses about commercial actors.
Until some hard questions about commercial rights to space resources—including the night sky—are answered in any explicit way, companies will continue to be able to use the final frontier as they see fit, whether that’s for mining asteroids or putting their billionaire CEO’s sports car into Mars orbit.