First China boasted that it was building a monster rocket that would out-NASA even the SLS. Now it wants to send an artificial moon into the sky.
This is not a questionable internet rumor. Chinese scientists really are intending to launch an “illumination satellite” — make that four — that will shine down on the city of Chengdu. If the first one makes it in 2020 without de-orbiting and burning up in the atmosphere (much as Russia’s prototype did back in 1993), the other three will follow in 2022.
The artificial moons actually aren’t part of some grand scheme to conquer the universe, as much as the project sounds like one. The purpose of what might seem like a piece of technology straight tout of a sci-fi movie is actually to save millions in electricity costs every year by making streetlights obsolete. Blackouts and natural disasters will no longer leave their victims in the dark if these satellites actually work.
But will they actually work?
China can’t make the same mistakes as Russia if it intends to keep something afloat and glowing up there. Russia’s Znamya 2 proto unfolded a 65-foot reflective film in space, which orbited hundreds of feet above Earth for a few hours. It shone a 3-mile spotlight over Europe, but since that light only traveled at about 5 miles an hour, most people (who were actually looking for it) only saw a flash in the night sky.
If China's satellite is going to focus on one city instead of zooming around, it needs to stay in a geostationary orbit slightly over 22,000 miles above Earth.
With a proposed orbit height of 310 miles, it doesn’t seem China’s first illumination satellite is going to get much further than Znamya 2. It also needs to be hundreds of feet across if it’s going to have any chance of actually lighting up an entire city. Then there is also the issue of what is going to power this thing. There has been no mention of thrusters or fuel, which are necessary if China doesn’t want drag and solar radiation to eventually shove its “moon” out of orbit, but even with fuel on board, the refueling costs could make electricity costs on Earth look like a discount.
Even if China manages to build something huge and loaded with the fuel and thrusters needed to keep it from falling through the atmosphere and getting incinerated, launching such a beast is an entirely different issue. Say they do. Light pollution has already been screwing around with nature, getting in the way of space observation, altering the night cycles of animals, and affecting the sleep cycles of humans.
Maybe China should just hang on to its streetlights.