Giant disco ball to plummet back to Earth

The party is coming to an end and much sooner than anticipated.The Humanity Star, a reflective satellite launc...

Posted: Mar 21, 2018 10:49 AM
Updated: Mar 21, 2018 10:49 AM

The party is coming to an end and much sooner than anticipated.

The Humanity Star, a reflective satellite launched by private company Rocket Lab, is expected to flame out sometime this week. Launched in New Zealand in January, it had been expected to keep us looking to the skies for the majority of 2018.

"In the coming days, the Humanity Star will begin its final descent into the Earth's atmosphere where it will burn up on re-entry, leaving no trace," Peter Beck, founder of Rocket Lab, said in a statement.

The satellite, which to many people resembles a disco ball, was launched to encourage people to "think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important for humanity," according to Beck.

The Humanity Star had no specific function, except as a spectacle. It is made from carbon fiber and has 65 reflective panels that reflect sunlight back to Earth. As it traverses the night sky, it spins rapidly, creating a blinking flashing effect.

But those days are numbered. According to Humanity Star's own tracker, the object is losing altitude and, based on the rate at which it is dropping, is expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere on Thursday.

Optimistic forecasting

Richard Easther, an astronomer from Auckland University, said the earlier-than-expected re-entry is likely down to flawed modeling.

"I'm guessing that the forecast was based on a regular sized satellite, and an object that is essentially a balloon will feel a lot more drag, more than the regular satellites that are sent up, (which resemble) a hunk of metal," he said.

Beck, the company's founder, said that the satellite was intended as an exercise to encourage people to think more deeply about their place in the cosmos.

"My hope was to encourage people to linger looking at the stars and ponder our place in the universe," he said.

"While the Humanity Star was a brief moment in human history, I hope the conversations and ideas it sparked around the world will continue to be explored."

However, Easther said he was encouraged that a company from New Zealand, a small, non-military power, was able to complete the launch successfully.

While the satellite "didn't achieve its goal," he said that the technological leap is the important takeaway.

"As a New Zealander I'm proud... (to see) homegrown hardware put in orbit," he said.

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