Artificial stars could redesign the night sky

Light pollution? StartRocket wants to display adverts in the sky by 2021.

Why not re-write the stars? We have the ability. Already, Japan wants to create fake meteor showers, China wants an artificial moon for street lighting and Russia wants to sell advertising.

In January 2018, a New Zealand company called Rocket Lab sent a large silver disco ball into space. It was was called the “Humanity Star” and it was there to “encourage people to consider their place in the universe”.

Astronomers were outraged. The Humanity Star’s light was blocking out real stars. Not only did it disrupt scientific observations — it was absurd to suggest that people would find more wonder in a fake star than in the real thing.

“This is stupid, vandalises the night sky, and corrupts our view of the cosmos,” complained astronomer David Kipping.

But it could become more common. In The Atlantic last week, science reporter Marina Koren wrote an article titled: “What if we gave up on the stars?”

For those who do not live deep in the countryside, light pollution is just a part of life. But Koren asked, “What if, instead of sentencing ourselves to many more years of starless night skies, we constructed a new one, furnished with artificial objects launched high into space, engineered to do the twinkling instead?”

We already look up to see the light from planes, or bright satellites like the International Space Station.

In January, Japan launched a rocket that will one day create on-demand “meteor showers” for people watching on Earth. The Chinese city Chengdu wants to use an artificial moon to replace streetlights. One Russian start-up has suggested using satellites to sell advertising space in the night sky.

“How incredibly disconnected we have become from that aspect of nature,” lamented John Barentine, from the International Dark-Sky Association, in The Atlantic.

Indeed, stars were not always mere decoration. Long before calendars were invented, the stars were the most reliable way of keeping track of seasons — which was key to developing agriculture. Thousands of years ago, Polynesian explorers used stars to navigate their way around the ocean.

The night sky was not just pretty — it was essential to our survival.

Reach for the stars?

Of course, those days are over now. Does this mean we can shape the sky however we want, as we have already done with nature on Earth? Rearranging the stars would be an incredible tribute to human ingenuity. “It’s a sign of modernity […] that we humans can put things into the sky that rival the stars themselves,” acknowledged Barentine.

But isn’t the untouched nature of the stars what makes them so appealing? “The natural night sky is our universal heritage,” says the Dark-Sky Association. Even the light from the closest stars takes four years to reach Earth. Most take hundreds. The night sky is older and more permanent than any of us; it would be a terrible shame to lose that sense of perspective now.

You Decide

  1. Should companies be allowed to advertise across the night sky?
  2. How often do you stop to look up at the stars? What do they make you think about?

Activities

  1. Design your own satellite which can be seen from Earth. What is its purpose? What does it look like? And is it worth blocking out the natural view of the stars?
  2. Research one way the stars have been used to help humanity in the past. Create a presentation, including facts, which explains your findings.

Some People Say...

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Carl Sagan, American astronomer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There are already about 8,100 satellites in the sky, although most cannot be seen with the naked eye. Last month, SpaceX launched into space 60 more satellites (the first of up to 12,000) which it hopes will one day provide internet for the entire planet. Astronomers are worried that the sheer amount of satellites in the sky will disrupt science and spoil our view of the stars.
What do we not know?
How our relationship with the stars will change. They were once used for practical purposes, and to search for signs about the future. Today, scientists use them to help unlock secrets about the way the universe works. But, for most of us, they are purely decorative — if we are lucky enough to see them at all. Will this change as more bright satellites are launched?

Word Watch

Light pollution
Excessive artificial light (from lamp posts, for example) during the night, which blocks out views of the stars. It also has a damaging impact on humans and wildlife.
International Space Station
This has orbited the Earth since 1998. According to NASA, it is the third-brightest object in the sky. You can sign up to email or text alerts to remind you when it is about to fly overhead.
International Dark-Sky Association
An organisation which campaigns against light pollution. In 2001, the International Dark-Sky Places (IDSP) progamme was founded in order to protect certain areas or parks from light pollution. There are now 115 certified IDSPs.
Keeping track
This is because, unlike the weather, the movement of the stars followed a predictable yearly pattern.
Polynesian
Between 3000 and 1000 BCE, Polynesian islanders used forms of traditional navigation to spread out and populate islands in the Pacific Ocean. For more, see under Become an Expert.
Closest stars
Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to Earth, at 4.37 lightyears away. It is actually made up of three stars which are so close that they appear as one.

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