Russia to orbit huge mirror, brighten patches of Earth Experimental project will circle planet 16 times, directing sunlight below

November 01, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- A few months from now, an object will appear suddenly in the night sky and unfold glistening panels like an insect unfurling new wings.

Slowly it will rotate and aim a blinding ray at Earth. The beam will roam over the globe's surface, seeking out population centers: southern Europe, Houston, maybe Los Angeles.

It's the latest from the Mir space station. In a project that seems to borrow equally from James Bond and Flash Gordon, the Russians are preparing to place a huge mirror in orbit about 230 miles above Earth.

Some call the plan visionary. Others call it demented.

"It's a completely crackpot idea," says Terence Dickinson, editor of the astronomy magazine SkyNews.

The man behind the mirror is Vladimir Syromyatnikov, a veteran Soviet space engineer whose career began before Sputnik was launched in 1957.

His dream is to learn how to beam sunlight into the frozen expanses of northern Russia, where light-deprived residents struggle through the winter on an hour or two of watery daylight and frequently suffer ailments such as depression and alcoholism.

The space mirror -- named Znamya, or Banner -- was launched to the Mir space station Oct. 25 on a cargo ship. When it is deployed in February, the 82-foot-diameter, aluminum-coated plastic mirror will make 16 orbits, casting down a shaft of sunlight about 1 1/2 miles wide at the surface, before it falls back toward Earth and burns up in the atmosphere.

Cosmonauts will aim the beam at various points lying between 30 and 40 degrees latitude north. One likely target will be the U.S. Space Center in Houston.

And since much of California is in that range, Syromyatnikov says there's a good chance the southern part of the state will get a dose.

If the sky is clear, those in its path will be bathed in light five to 10 times brighter than the moon -- enough to read a newspaper.

Eventually, Syromyatnikov says, a whole necklace of such mirrors could be slung around Earth, keeping cities in Russia's far north in a welcome, solar glow.

Dickinson and other critics say the concept is full of holes.

For one thing, Dickinson says, with the mirror flying past at 17,000 mph, it's practically impossible to keep it trained on a fixed target below. For another, reflected sunlight will never be strong enough to mimic the sun.

"You could fill the sky with full moons and you would only have the amount of sunlight of a very overcast day," he says.

And that's not to mention scenarios of ecological havoc -- polar ice caps melting, animals coming out of hibernation or seeds sprouting in midwinter.

But even Dickinson acknowledges that the mirror has one potentially invaluable application that at first sounds even more far-fetched: interplanetary travel.

The concept of using mirrors to travel through space has been floating around since the 1920s. The idea, proposed then by Russian physicists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Fridrikh Tsander, is unnervingly simple.

In the vacuum of space, the force of photons of sunlight bouncing off its reflective surface is enough to move a mirror. Theoretically, a mirror could travel infinite distances as long as it had a light source.

Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif., says a mirror or "solar sail" about 1,000 feet across -- 12 times the size of Znamya -- would be big enough to transport a payload of about 100 pounds between planets.

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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