Rocket Lab is a new California-based startup whose slogan is “Space is open for business.” It’s apparently open for art, too, since the company sent an orbital art installation, a shiny geodesic ball called “Humanity Star," into orbit with the company’s first three satellites on January 21. Rocket Lab describes the piece as a "bright flashing shooting star" reminding us of what we all share. Some astronomers see it another way, referring to it in tweets as a “vanity star,” “graffiti,” ”vandalism,” “litter,” and, of course, an orbiting “disco ball.” Some see something even more sinister.

The carbon-fiber Humanity Star is going to be the brightest thing in our night skies for the next nine months thanks to its 65 highly reflective flat planes, after which it’ll disintegrate as it returns to the atmosphere. During that time, you can, as Rocket Labs founder and Humanity Star creator Peter Beck puts it, "Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.” (You can find out when the satellite will be visible in your area on the Humanity Star site.)

black and art
(Photo: Rocket Lab)

Or you may begin wondering just who exactly owns the skies above us all, and who gets to decide what goes there. The graffiti label seems especially apt: Someone has decided to display their art in arguably our largest public space.

For many professional astronomers, there’s no debate about whether art or science should prevail here, though: the answer is science, and, oh also, the last thing they’re looking for is another light source blocking their view with no purpose other than to be visible.

Caleb A Scharf, an astronomer at Columbia University, writes in Scientific American, that, “Astronomers are well used to finding their hard won images streaked with the destructive light trails of glinting objects as they pass overhead.” That’s not to excuse Rocket Lab, though, since he likens what they’ve done to attaching a "big flashing strobe-light on a polar bear."

Another astronomer, Alex Parker, shared what a satellite does to an otherwise clear field of view.

A more serious concern—not to dismiss the, um, gravity of astronomers’ concerns—is that Humanity Star adds to an increasingly worrying junkyard of human debris circling overhead. NASA estimates there are over 20,000 softball-size pieces of it, more than 500,000 larger ones, and countless millions of smaller bits. According to the Daily Mirror, the biggest chunk of trash currently at large is ESA’s Evisat, a defunct satellite twice as big as a double-decker bus.

space junk model
Click for a realtime map of the debris. (Image: stuffin.space)

NASA’s Donald J. Kessler raised concerns about all this stuff back in 1978, noting that the more debris, the more likely collisions become, each of which produces yet more debris. When Russia's Cosmos-2251 and a U.S. commercial satellite collided in 2009, for example, it left behind a cloud of 2,000 pieces of debris. The nightmare scenario, referred to as the "Kessler syndrome," would be a single collision setting off a expanding, cataclysmic chain reaction of further collisions. Holger Krag, of the European Space Service’s (ESA) Space Debris Office, says such a destructive cascade “is not anything that would happen in a microsecond, like in the movie Gravity, but this is something that would set in slowly, hardly noticeable, but unstoppable.” The ESA now plans for obsolescence with its own satellites, building in mechanisms for sending them safely down into the ocean or into safe “graveyard” orbits when their useful lives come to an end. NASA Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Orbital Debris Program Office is also documenting, analyzing, and tracking space trash.

And yet the launching of new orbital objects continues apace, with, for example, India celebrating the launch of 104 small satellites from a single craft last February, a new record, and a dubious achievement.

It’s estimated that at least one functioning satellite per year gets taken out by roving debris. “Every day we use and rely on services provided by satellites without ever realizing how vulnerable they are,” says Hugh Lewis of University of Southampton, noting that the logistics of navigating through the high-speed junk may even become a limiting factor in humankind’s exploration of space. “It's not just that satellites can be damaged or destroyed by space debris today or tomorrow, it's that the actions of our generation may affect the dreams and ambitions of future generations to work and live in space."

No one’s suggesting the Humanity Star is going to trigger the Kessler syndrome, but rather that it’s further evidence that our standards for what’s worth placing in orbit are out of whack. The satellite also won’t utterly destroy astronomers’ prospects over the long term—it’ll be gone in October. But it does raise an important concern: Are we incapable of not doing to space what we’ve done to our own world?

look up
(Photo: Quinn Dombrowski)

It would be beyond ironic if someday we’re forced to find another planet but can’t because we’re trapped on Earth’s surface by our own impenetrable orbital junkyard.