Russians try shining giant space mirror on Earth Experiment attempts to reflect sun onto cities

disc also a 'space sail'

February 04, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Russian space scientists launched a giant mirror from the orbiting station Mir early today in pursuit of the futuristic idea of lighting up entire northern cities at night with the reflected rays of the sun.

The shiny disc 25 yards across could also be considered a precursor to a solar sail -- a means of propelling a spacecraft by solar power, which scientists have long dreamed of creating -- and racing to the moon, according to officials at the Flight Control Center near Moscow.

"It's very fantastical," deputy flight director Viktor Blagov said. But, "As the Russian saying goes, he who doesn't risk never gets to drink champagne."

The experiment began before dawn today (3:48 a.m. Moscow time, 7:48 p.m. EST Wednesday).

If the mirror functions correctly, said Mr. Blagov before the launch, the sun's rays reflecting off it would shine a shaft of light about three miles wide onto the nighttime side of the planet. Moving with the Earth's rotation, the column of light would travel about 5 miles a second across Europe from Lyon in France to Brest in Belarus until it fades in the sunrise over Russia.

To the people in its path, however, it would be only as a sparkle in the sky, scientists predicted.

"If everything works," Mr. Blagov said, "and we learn to control such discs and get the financing and put a lot of discs into orbit, we can offer services like, say, the lighting of Alaska."

Or at least, the discs could light up key industrial areas in spots such as the mining city of Vorkuta in Russia's Far North, where the polar night hampers operations for four months a year, Mr. Blagov said. It could also be used to light rescue operations and earthquake zones when all power is lost.

Russia's space program, once a showpiece of Soviet technology that jarred the United States by launching the first Sputnik, or satellite, in 1957, has faltered as the strapped government has cut back its funding.

But it has also made impressive strides in turning space into a paying proposition. For instance, it markets its satellite-launching rockets at a fraction of what its U.S. rivals charge for a launch.

And Russia now holds a clear advantage in the arcane race to create a solar sail, leading U.S., French, and Japanese rivals. With Operation Banner, Russia became the first country to test something close to a solar sail.

Made of light, strong material known as Mylar and covered with a layer of aluminum, the mirror -- which also could serve as a sail -- weighs less than 100 pounds.

Space engineer Nikolai Kryuchkov said the mirror could not be considered a full solar sail, however, because it would be towed by a supply ship, the Progress, rather than powered by solar particles bouncing off its reflective surface.

The idea behind the solar sail is that if a craft is light enough, it can be propelled through space faster and faster by solar particles called photons, which impart a tiny burst of energy whenever they strike a solid object. Western scientists speculate such solar sails could provide the basis for interplanetary travel.

Mr. Blagov said that for a solar sail to build up any speed, it would take from 30 to 60 days -- but that once it got going, its energy was basically free, like wind for a sailboat. He estimated that it will take at least three or four years to build a full-fledged sun craft.

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