China’s space program is no longer confined to sending satellites into space but is also reflecting the commercial viability of lighting the streets in the night using artificial moons up in the sky. In fact, Russia tried its hands at the project during the mid-1990s.
Making street lights redundant, China might save $170 million, if the pilot project succeeds in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Once successful, it will give way to three more such moons to be launched in 2022, said Wu Chunfeng, head of Tian Fu New Area Science Society in Chengdu, reports China Daily.
The artificial moon will be coated with a reflective shield that can deflect sunlight back to Earth, illuminating the target city complementing the moon at night but eight time brighter, requiring no street lights and vehicle lights in the night.
To be placed at an orbit of about 500 kilometers above Earth compared to the moon which is 380,000-km distance to the Earth, the man-made moon will have a coverage accuracy of a few dozen metres, said Wu.
“But this is not enough to light up the entire night sky,” he quickly added. “Its expected brightness, in the eyes of humans, is around one-fifth of normal streetlights.”
The artificial moon’s mirrors can be adjusted for luminosity, and can be switched off whenever not needed. The only exception is when the sky is overcast and too cloudy. “The first moon will be mostly experimental, but the three moons in 2022 will be the real deal with great civic and commercial potential,” Wu said.
The three new man-made moons can take turns and together they can illuminate an area of around 3,600 to 6,400 sq km on Earth for 24 hours, he explained.
The project undertaken by Tian Fu New Area Science Society has other notable institutes such as Harbin Institute of Technology and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, which are engaged in collaborative research.
However, Wu is apprehensive that it might disrupt the physiological status of people and animals, with no regular alternations between night and day that disrupts metabolic patterns, including sleep.
“We will only conduct our tests in an uninhabited desert,” he said.
Russian Mirror Satellite in 1990s
In the past, Russia tried sending a 25-meter diameter space mirror called Banner, but the space mirror misfired second time and the entire project was shelved due to funds crunch.
The project to build Znamya or “Banner” was as old as the late 1980s taken up by Russian engineer, Vladimir Syromyatnikov, known for his brilliant engineering in space technology, including the Vostok, that had put Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961.
Syromyatnikov wanted solar sails to redirect sunlight back towards the Earth, and in 1993 he got his chance to put Znamya to the test. Measuring 65-foot-wide, the sheet of mylar was unfurled on the night of February 4, 1993, it directed a beam of light about two or three times as bright as the moon and two-and-a-half miles wide down to Earth’s night sky, passing across the Atlantic ocean, over Europe, and into Russia, reports said.
However, a follow-up satellite got caught on one of Mir’s antennae, which ripped the delicate sail and the mission was scrapped. Syromyatnikov died in 2006.