Humanity Star

Humanity Star. Provided

The newest manufactured star in the sky is a spinning sphere of mirrors that critics compare to a disco ball. In early March, you can catch a glimpse for the first — and maybe last — time.

The Humanity Star is a satellite secretly launched into orbit in January from a rocket releasing payloads for a private California company called Rocket Lab. Shaped like a faceted diamond pendant, It's about 3 feet high.

Spinning overhead it reflects sunlight in flashes like, well, a blinking disco ball.

Rocket Lab on Friday forecast the star to fly over Charleston for the first time on Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. It will be visible in the northeastern sky at a 25-degree angle, or about one-fourth of the way up, for six minutes. Future chances to see it will be limited. The satellite will crash back into the atmosphere and burn up in about nine months.

Until then, it will zip along at about 27,000 mph, circling the Earth every 90 minutes some 200 miles high.

The idea of an artificial, attention-drawing mechanical star is raising hackles, as well as eyes, in the world of science. Peter Beck, the Rocket Lab founder, said he intends for it to be a one-time experience, a way to get more people looking into the night sky "thinking and working as one species" on a small planet in a big universe.

Some astronomers are intrigued.

"Anything that promotes interest in looking up at after dark and, maybe, studying information about satellites, their physics and uses, has value for kids and adults," said Jim Hoffman, of the Lowcountry Stargazers astronomy group. 

A lot of others, though, aren't so enraptured. Jon Hakkila, a College of Charleston astronomy professor, compared it to a billboard for Rocket Lab, and said the star might not turn out to be so one-of-a kind.

"My understanding is that this might be the first of many orbital satellites that will exist solely for the purpose of being seen from Earth," he said. "Just as I would rather not have the billboard block my view of fields and forests, I would prefer to see the night sky without having attention drawn to someone's advertisement."

Rocket Lab's launch vehicle uses a 3-D printed carbon engine, something that caught the interest of College of Charleston astronomy professor Terry Richardson — until the star launch was announced.

"Just more space junk," he said. But, yes, both astronomers are likely to take a gander at the thing as it passes by, they said.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.