Giant disco ball is plummeting back to Earth

New Zealand satellite

Dust off old Donna Summer albums and celebrate the premature return of New Zealand’s giant “disco ball” satellite as it drops down to Earth from outer space.  Just like the Age of Disco, it will completely disintegrate, leaving only groovy memories.

The Humanity Star is a reflective satellite launched in January by Rocket Lab, a private New Zealand company. It was intended to remain in operation for most of this year, instead it will flame out this week. Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck said in a statement, “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.”

The satellite, which looks like a disco ball, had no specific function, except as a spectacle. (Think of the Tesla roadster shot into space by Elon Musk’s SpaceX last February.)  The Humanity Star is made from carbon fiber and has 65 reflective panels that bounce sunlight back to Earth. The ball spins rapidly as it traverses the night sky, creating a blinking effect.

Think fast! The satellite was meant to encourage people to “think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important for humanity,” according to a company press release. But according to the satellite’s own tracker, the object is losing altitude at a rate where it is now expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on Thursday.

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 told CNN.

New Zealand satelliteBeck, pictured above, said, “My hope was to encourage people to linger looking at the stars and ponder our place in the universe. 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.”

Both men mentioned Kiwi pride in that a company from New Zealand, a small, non-military power, was able to successfully complete the launch. Added Easther, “As a New Zealander I’m proud… (to see) homegrown hardware put in orbit.”

This writer is still marveling that TV shows about cake ever became popular.  Now I have to grapple with this new trend of expensive space litter. Thankfully, at least Israeli start-up is working to clean-up space (read more here).

Images courtesy of Humanity Star

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