Humanity Star, we hardly knew ye.
When Rocket Lab revealed in January that it sent a disco-ball satellite called “the Humanity Star” into orbit, as one of the payloads aboard its low-cost Electron rocket, the company said it could stay up shining in the night sky for nine months or so.
But now Satview’s projection of the roughly 3-foot-wide, 20-pound satellite’s orbital decay indicates it will descend to a fiery doom on Thursday.
Jonathan McDowell, a satellite watcher who works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told The Atlantic that Rocket Lab may not have taken full account of how quickly atmospheric drag would bring down a relatively low-mass spacecraft with a relatively large cross-section.
That suggests there’s not much time left to see the satellite that Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck hoped would remind skywatchers that “humanity is capable of great and kind things.”
It’s only been a few weeks since the Humanity Star’s nearly pole-to-pole orbit brought it into the zone of visibility for Seattleites. Now there may be just one or two opportunities left — several minutes’ worth of predawn sparkle that begin at 5:31 a.m. PT Wednesday and potentially at 5:17 a.m. PT Thursday. (Check out Heavens-Above.com or TheHumanityStar.com to get precise viewing times for your locale.)
Some astronomers were bugged by the idea of having yet another piece of shiny stuff disrupting their view of the night sky, and they’ll be glad to see it go. But to tell the truth, finding the Humanity Star takes some effort, because its 76 reflective panels catch the sunlight for only an instant at a time as the satellite spins.
Rocket Lab has no plans to put up another Humanity Star once this one is gone. However, Beck has been showing off an earthbound twin of the satellite this week at Amazon’s MARS conference in Palm Springs, Calif.
And if you’re into falling stars, there’s a big one coming up: China’s Tiangong-1 space lab, which is now expected to fall from orbit and burn up during atmospheric re-entry within the next two or three weeks.