RocketLab add a temporary star to the night sky

Before moving to NZ, I wrote a list of Kiwi companies that I would love to work for. Right at the top of that list was RocketLab. Founded by New Zealander Peter Beck, and headquartered in California, RocketLab has a manufacturing and R&D base in Auckland, and a launch site in the beautiful Māhia Peninsula in Hawke’s Bay). Unfortunately, neither of its NZ facilities are near Wellington, so I parked that dream, and instead became a RocketLab fangirl, reading every news story I could get my hands on.

Why do I love them so much? Well, there are lots of reasons, but here are four of them– 1. They’re actively removing the barriers to commercial space, 2. They’re doing it from NZ, 3. They’re using some incredible, bespoke technology to reach orbit, and 4. Peter Beck is a fricken legend.

I’m currently working on a feature that will cover the first three things, but let’s take a quick look at #4. Peter is from Invercargill, right at the bottom of NZ, and seems to have spent most of his early life doing stuff with his hands – he rebuilt a Mini and added a turbocharger, did a toolmaking apprenticeship with Fisher & Paykel, and worked in materials research at Industrial Research Ltd. But alongside all of this, Peter kept working on developing his passion – rocketry. In 2006, he headed off to the US to learn as much as he could about the space industry. He returned to NZ convinced that the future of rocketry was commercial; that as the planet became increasingly connected, companies would rely on frequently launched, low-cost satellites. And so he founded RocketLab.

Since then, Peter has been steadily growing the company – securing considerable investment, building state-of-the-art R&D facilities in the US and in NZ, and recruiting experts in everything from 3D and carbon fibre, to propulsion systems and orbital mechanics. And last week, with the second test launch of their Electron rocket, RocketLab successfully delivered three small satellites to low-Earth orbit.

But it turns out, that wasn’t the whole story…. There was actually a fourth payload on-board, and I learned about its contents from the man himself. Yesterday, in the biggest ‘pinch-me’ moment I’ve had in quite some time, I had an impromptu phone call with Peter Beck. As you do.

I’d been expecting to chat to Morgan, one of RocketLab’s comms team, but when the call connected, I could hear two voices. And then Morgan casually said “I have Peter here with me too”. I admit that I wasn’t at my coolest. I may even have squealed. I’m not sure, it’s all a bit hazy. Anyway, once I’d recovered, we talked about the business, the incredible tech that RocketLab have developed, and Peter’s motivation to reach beyond the terrestrial. I even managed to land an invite to their facility in Auckland in a few weeks. It was a rather good call all round 🙂

Right at the end of our conversation, Peter said “I want to tell you something, but you have to promise to keep it a secret until tomorrow Seen as you’re such a space nut, I can’t help myself.” I giggled, because I’m really professional like that. He went on to say that the mysterious ‘secret payload’ that had been deployed to orbit at 14:43 NZDT, on Sunday 21st January was something called The Humanity Star. Described as “a 1m-diameter geodesic carbon fibre sphere made from 65 highly reflective panels”, the Humanity Star spins rapidly, reflecting the sun’s light back to Earth. An orbital disco ball, if you will.

Orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes and visible to the naked eye from anywhere on the globe, RocketLab say that their Humanity Star is “designed to be a bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe.”

Talking to me on the phone Peter said, “You needed a radio to experience Sputnik, but for the Humanity Star, you need nothing more than your eyes – you just have to go outside at the right time, and look up.” This beautiful, shiny ball will orbit the Earth for approximately nine months before orbital decay starts to bring the satellite back down into the atmosphere. But from later today, you’ll be able to track it yourself! Head over to www.TheHumanityStar.com for all the details.

I don’t think he’ll mind me saying this, but Peter is a massive nerd – but of the best sort. He’s brilliant, full of ideas and ambition, but also still incredibly excited by his work. Whatever you feel about commercial spaceflight, the symbolism of the Humanity Ball, this speck of light that will streak across the sky, viewable from everywhere on Earth, seems especially timely. As I see it, it’s a plea to look up, to recognise that we’re all on this lump of rock together, and maybe to inspire us to take action.

EDIT: Since writing this article in the depths of last night, I’ve had a few conversations with people I admire, and have seen a lot of responses from astronomers (not just in NZ), criticising RocketLab for launching the Humanity Star; some even describing it as an act of ‘environmental vandalism’. I can understand their position, and I don’t think that they should be mocked for it. A highly-reflective ball in orbit will indeed add a source of light pollution to the night sky (albeit temporarily), which will impact other observations when it’s around. Personally, I’m keen to focus on celebrating the engineering involved in the programme, rather than on this ‘personal project’, because I believe that RocketLab are doing some genuinely incredible R&D. I am really looking forward to learning (and writing) more about it. But, for the record, while I’m cheering this one on, I’m not sure we need to keep on sending disco balls into the sky.