China’s Second (Artificial) Moon

As the world strives to meet power demands with increasingly strained global resources, the Chinese government is seeking relief in an artificial moon. Its plan to launch a satellite to illuminate the sky that began in 2013 is one of the most ambitious projects that has been declared in the National Mass Innovation and Entrepreneurship Week, held in the country in 2018. This annual fair is a display of  the most innovative emerging technologies in the country.

As per the details disclosed by Wu Chunfeng, Chairman of Chengdu Aerospace Science and Technology Microelectronics System Research Institute Co. Ltd. (the organization responsible for the project), streets of China’s Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, may soon glow even at night with a second (but artificial) moon. It will be launched by the New Area Science Society by 2020. This is a man-made moon mission which may replace street lamps and reduce electricity costs in urban areas. The artificial moon will be launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan. The details about the deployment of the artificial moon have not be disclosed by the company. The first experimental launch will be followed by 3 more in 2022 provided the first test goes well.  They will take turns, based on who’s facing the Sun, beaming light on the city streets. All the illuminating satellites are expected to together illuminate 2,000 to 4,000 square miles (3,600 to 6,400 square kilometers) for up to 24 hours.

This satellite will be eight times brighter than earth’s natural moon and is intended to make Chengdu’s streets moonlit at night throughout the year. It will be capable of lightning up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) in diameter. It will be an extraterrestrial source of light. It has a commercial potential because it can save nearly 1.2 billion yuan ($170 million) a year in electricity costs for Chengdu by reflecting the light from the sun at night and illuminating an area with diameter 10-80 kilometers (6 to 50 miles). The second moon will have a highly reflective coating surface to reflect light from the sun. The angles of the solar panels on the artificial orb’s wings can be focussed to give precise illumination within 10 meters (33 feet).

Similar attempt by Russia to launch  Znamya 2.5, a space mirror in 1999 that was intended to produce light equivalent to three to five full moons fizzled before launch. Its Mayak satellite, that was claimed to be the brightest object in the night sky, was launched in July 2017. It failed to be one because the solar reflector failed to unfurl in orbit. Giant computer-controlled mirrors installed above the Norwegian town of Rjukan reflect the sun’s rays onto the town square. Now a part of Rjukan that used to be in shadow for half the year receives sunlight during that period too.

China’s lunar project to launch an illumination satellite to glow in conjunction with the moon is surely a breakthrough idea. However, concerns about light disrupting the habitat of light sensitive nocturnal animals and astronomical observations have been looming over the project. As per Kang Weimin, the Director of the Institute of Optics of the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, the artificial satellite will be capable of giving only a “dusk-like glow” which may have temporarily mitigate concerns, however, what happens after the launch is a wait-and-watch scenario.

Undoubtedly, the proposed artificial moon complementing the natural moon’s glow will be a sight to see and if successful, it may even pioneer a new wave of renewable energy usage.

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