Russian scientists to attempt turning night into day with space mirror

January 12, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Russian scientists are planning soon to unfurl a glistening sheet of plastic in space as a first step toward testing an intriguing notion about turning night into day -- or at least into twilight.

Tucked aboard a Progress cargo spacecraft attached to the Mir space station is an experiment called Znamya, or "Banner," that will test the idea of using a mirror in space to reflect sunlight down to Earth.

If all goes as planned, the Banner payload will be deployed next month to unfurl into a 65-foot-diameter disk of aluminum-coated plastic film. The experiment will test the feasibility of illuminating points on Earth with light equivalent to that of several full moons.

Russian engineers say it should also teach them a lot about handling thin sheets of plastic in space, a step toward developing large sails to propel ships in space using the faint force of sunlight.

"This should be a marvelous technical demonstration," said James E. Oberg of Houston, an expert on Russian space programs who wrote the book "Red Star in Orbit."

If it can be done, proponents say, providing sunshine at night could save billions of dollars each year in electrical lighting costs, extend twilight hours during planting and harvesting seasons to aid farmers, allow more working hours on large construction projects and help in rescue and recovery operations after natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes.

While the idea of space mirrors fascinates some, others have wondered about possible environmental effects of interrupting the normal day-night cycle of animals and plants, particularly if the practice became widespread. Weather also might be influenced.

Proponents of space mirrors say there is no evidence to date that reflected sunlight would cause harm, but they agree on the need for environmental studies. Light from space would be both clean and renewable, they note, and would replace generated electricity and its associated pollution.

The test is also drawing attention from engineers and space enthusiasts interested in the concept of solar sailing, in which gossamer sails hundreds or thousands of feet long and wide would harness the pervasive pressure of sunlight in the vacuum of space to move ships.

Studies by NASA and others indicate that solar sailing is a feasible way of propulsion that would free spacecraft from having to carry heavy chemical fuel.

But like the space reflector idea, no government has supported the concept with money to test it.

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