Is China Launching Fake Moon a Bright Idea?

The full moon illuminates Yuyuan gardens in Shanghai, China. Eventually a ‘fake’ moon could light up Chengdu — a city in China’s Sichuan province. LUCAS SCHIFRES/CONTRIBUTOR/GETTY IMAGES
There’s a fake moon on the rise. A Chinese space contractor recently announced that it plans to launch a satellite designed to unleash artificial moonlight in the year 2020. The contraption is intended to act as a streetlight supplement; once in orbit, it’ll use reflective material to provide the residents of Chengdu — a city in China’s Sichuan province — with extra illumination at nighttime.

Critics of the project worry about its environmental impact, but advocates say the satellite (and others like it) should reduce electricity costs down on Earth, saving Chengdu’s government the equivalent of $173 million per year. Of course, that’s assuming the device works as advertised. To make sure its deployment goes smoothly, plans have been made to rigorously test the satellite before it lights up any populated areas.

Low Orbit, High Concept
News of this initiative was broken at an Oct. 10, 2018, conference by businessman Wu Chungfeng. He chairs the Chengdu Aerospace Science and Technology Microelectronics System Institute Co., which does contract work for the Chinese Space Program. At present, there’s been no confirmation that the national government or the city of Chengdu is on board with upcoming satellite.

However, according to Chungfeng, such well-respected groups as the Harbin Institute of Technology and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation have signed off on the spacecraft and think it’s ready to begin trial runs.

Our real moon doesn’t produce any light of its own; the heavenly body seems to glow because its surface reflects light from the sun. China’s new “artificial moon” will use the same trick. The satellite, Chungfeng told the press, is going to use reflective coating to direct sunlight Chengdu’s way. Some commentators speculate that large, solar-panel like objects may have been affixed to the satellite for this purpose.

The current plan is to have the craft revolve in low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 310 miles (500 kilometers). That’d put it above the International Space Station’s average 248-mile (400-kilometer) altitude and below the Hubble Telescope, which is normally around 353 miles (569 kilometers) above us. And obviously, all three of those objects are much, much closer to our planet than the actual moon, which is 225,623 miles (363,104 kilometers) away at its nearest point.

When the Moon Hits Your Eye
Reportedly, the artificial moon will be up to eight times as luminous as its natural, rock-laden counterpart. At that intensity, this satellite won’t brighten the entire sky, but it should give off what one Harbin Institute of Technology scientist described as a “dusk-like” glow. Speaking to China Daily, Chungfeng maintained that — under normal conditions — the spacecraft will have one-fifth of the brightness of a typical streetlight when seen from planet Earth’s surface through naked eyes.

If things get too vibrant, human operators are supposed to have some degree of control over the satellite’s brightness or dimness. They can also turn it off entirely.

And that’s not all: Chungfeng says the object is able to focus its reflected light onto a very specific portion of the Earth’s surface, illuminating a small area with a diameter of 6.2 to 50 miles (10 to 80 kilometers). That won’t be nearly enough to cover Chengdu, which encompasses 4,787 square miles (12,400 square kilometers). But by Chungfeng’s estimate, if the satellite illuminates just 19 square miles (50 square kilometers) of the city, Chengdu could scale back its urban lighting infrastructure and thus save 1.2 billion yuan — or $173 million — annually.

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A Time For Reflection
The Russians did something similar in the 1990s. Hoping to boost productivity in polar regions, astro-engineer Vladimir Sergeevich Syromyatnikov created what The New York Times described as a “space mirror.” Called the Znamaya (“banner”), this was a satellite equipped with a large sheet of aluminum-covered plastic that could be unfurled at will.

After a long stint aboard the Mir space station, the Znamaya was released into orbit on Feb. 4, 1993. It proceeded to shine a light beam with full-moon levels of brightness down on Europe, though cloud cover blocked it from view in many places. A few days later, the Znamaya burned up — but there was a sequel. On Feb. 5, 1999, a larger reimagining of the original spacecraft left the Mir. Unfortunately, Znamaya 2.5 immediately ran into trouble when its reflective mirror got caught on an antenna and ripped, forcing Russia to terminate the satellite.

A New Zealand company took a stab at aping moonlight, as well. January, 2018 saw the controversial launch of Rocket Lab’s “Humanity Star,” essentially an overgrown disco ball with 76 reflective panels. The quasi-spherical object orbited Earth at 90-minute intervals until it prematurely disintegrated on March 23.

Is This a Bright Idea?
Artificial moons are not a new idea, but they’ll become a new reality if Chungfeng’s craft does its job. Should the new device function properly, China plans to send up three more light-reflecting satellites into space in 2022.

Critics worry about the extra light pollution this may cause. Will the manmade moons frustrate astronomers by blocking out the view of the stars in certain areas? And how will they affect animals like birds and sea turtles whose movements are guided by natural moonlight? Chungfeng says that such points are being considered. He claims the satellites have been in development for several years and they’ll be tested in “an uninhabited desert,” where he hopes the light beams won’t affect urbanites or astronomical observatories.

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