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Telescopes and space missions

Falcon Heavy and Humanity Star: trailblazers or space junk?

15 Mar 2018

When the SpaceX Falcon Heavy made its maiden launch on 6 February, the overwhelming reaction was one of awe. Its widely reported payload – Elon Musk’s personal cherry red Tesla Roadster sportscar – added to the audaciousness of the mission and reaffirmed Musk’s rock-star status. No doubt, vast numbers of students around the globe will have had their imaginations lit up, some may even have started thinking about the exciting opportunities of a career in engineering.

However, there have been a few voices of dissent. Some critics have suggested that the rocket payload is merely adding to the growing problem of space junk. Perhaps an even stronger criticism is that firing a flashy sportscar into space is a symbol of the distain the super-rich have for the many people on Earth who live in poverty. The controversy around the Falcon Heavy launch is the subject of the Physics World monthly podcast, which is presented as always by Andrew Glester. Joining Andrew in the busy café at Physics World HQ is Physics World careers editor Tushna Commissariat and special guest Tim Gregory who recently appeared on the BBC show Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?

Elon Musk

Andrew and crew also discuss the recently launched Humanity Star, which has also generated some controversy in the astronomical community. Launched in January by the private company Rocket Lab, the mission’s payload is described as “a highly reflective satellite that blinks brightly across the night sky to create a shared experience for everyone on the planet.” However, some astronauts fear that this “giant disco ball” is frivolous and might even interfere with their view of the night sky. Andrew puts some of these concerns to Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck and debates the issue at length with Tushna and Tim, asking whether they see a fundamental difference in the ethos and impact of these two high-profile private launches.

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