China’s Crazy Plan to Launch an Artificial Moon

Guess what? China has announced plans to launch an “artificial
moon” into our skies by 2020. And, as crazy as that sounds, it’s not actually
the first time something like this has been attempted. But first. China’s new plan. As reported in China Daily, China plans to
launch an “illumination satellite” into orbit above the city of Chengdu. Well actually, four illumination satellites. The first as a proof of concept in 2020 and
the next three as the real deal in 2022. There aren’t a ton of details about the
satellites themselves yet, like how big they are or what they will be made of, but we DO
know they’ll be covered with a “reflective coating similar to the moon’s”? Whatever that’s supposed to mean. At the proposed distance of 500km, a single
satellite is expected to illuminate an area between 10 and 80 km, with light around “8
times brighter” than the moon’s. If all goes to plan, the scientists hope the
moons will replace street lights in urban areas and save the city millions in electricity
costs annually. They could also help light up streets during
natural disasters and blackouts. Those same benefits are what prompted Russia
to try something similar 20 years ago, in what was called Project Znamya. In 1993, Russia successfully deployed their
own prototype of an illumination satellite, about a 20 meter reflective film that unfolded
in space. For a few hours, it orbited a couple hundred
meters above earth, beaming a 5km wide spotlight over Europe. But, that light only moved at about 8 km/hour,
meaning most people just saw a flash in the sky as it passed. Eventually, it fell out of orbit and burned
up on reentry. The Russians tried this again a few years
later, this time with a 25 meter mirror. However, the satellite failed to deploy, and
it quickly fell out of orbit. There were plans to launch a third, even bigger
mirror, but the project faced serious budgeting issues and was later abandoned. So China’s plan is essentially picking up
where Russia left off, taking note of their mistakes and making something that will actually
work, right? Well, as critics have been quick to point
out, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The first, and probably biggest, issue with
China’s proposed scheme concerns the height of orbit. In order for a satellite to track a single
city on earth, it would need to be in a geostationary orbit, about 36,000 km above earth. At the proposed 500 km, China’s satellites
would face the same problem that Russia’s did, whipping around earth, quickly lighting
up random places for a fraction of a second as they go- which isn’t exactly the goal. And even if 500km was a typo, and they meant
to say 36 thousand, a satellite at that height would need to be extraordinarily large – hundreds
of meters across- to reflect much back to earth. And while the article doesn’t specify how
big China’s sats will be, launching something big enough could be prohibitively difficult. Critics also pointed out the plan has no mention
of any sort of thrusters or fuel onboard these satellites. And that would probably be a necessity since
out in space, the satellites– like the Russian mirrors– will experience drag and solar radiation
that will eventually push them out of orbit. The cost of the initial fuel and subsequent
refueling missions could outweigh any savings in electricity costs on Earth. Reportedly, researchers at several universities
and institutes have looked over the plan and have given it the okay for trial, so maybe
we just don’t have all the details. If that’s the case, and the plan does work,
should we be worried? Many scientists have expressed concerns that
these satellites will amplify the light pollution problems we already have. Excess light from cities today alters night
cycles of animals, the sleep cycles of humans, and disrupts astronomers’ view of space. And a project of this scale will likely make
those problems worse. It’s not clear in the reports whether the
Chinese government has given these plans any sort of official backing, So, I suppose for
now, we’ll just have to wait and see if any new moons light up the sky. You may not be able to launch your own illumination
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playlist. One last thing, the engineer who started the
Russian satellite project actually wanted to test solar sail technology, but he found
the prospect of daylight-extension was much easier to get funding for. Don’t forget to subscribe, and I’ll see
you next time on Seeker.

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