Russia, February 8, 1999
What Russians can do with a space station and a bottle of vodka.
|I wanted to write an introduction to this article, but
there isn't much to do aside from wondering how many vodka shots it
takes to dream up something like this.
The Guardian February 3, 1999
James Meek in Moscow and Ian Traynor in Bonn on a bid to bring heavenly glow down to earth
In the most audacious attempt to rearrange the natural order of the heavens since God said 'Let there be light', Russian scientists are to flood parts of Europe tomorrow night with the glow from an artificial moon. If all goes according to plan, a pool of light roughly nine miles wide and 25 miles long, projected from space, will illuminate a swath of north Germany and Belgium shortly after sunset. If it is a clear night the light, as bright as 10 moons, should be visible almost 200 miles from its epicentre. The cosmic spotlight will be projected from a giant mirrored parasol attached to a Russian Progress 'space tug' detached from the Mir space station. Cosmonauts on Mir will direct the device to reflect the sun's rays on to the earth.
Over a 13-hour period the experiment, known as Znamya 2.5, will illuminate six 'zones' on earth for four minutes each. Three of the zones are in southern Russia, northern Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The fourth zone, between Frankfurt in Germany and Liege in Belgium, will be lit from 6.50pm to 6.54pm local time. The light will later appear between Quebec and Winnipeg in Canada, before hitting the final zone between Calgary, and Devils Lake in the United States.
The only problem is that nobody outside Russia seems to know anything about the experiment. 'I've heard nothing about this, but that's not unusual because we often learn of the Russian space experiments from the papers or the TV,' said Raimund Lentzen, the head of the German Astronauts' Office near Cologne. A spokesman for the technology ministry in Bonn was equally nonplussed. 'It's a bit early for April Fool jokes but this sounds like one,' he said.
'It shouldn't be a problem,' said Ulf Mehrboldt, a German astronaut who has flown on two US space missions and spent one month on Mir in 1994. 'They don't need permission: the sun shines on Germany, too, and you can't ban that. 'The reflective parasol, about 25 yards in diameter, was built by a Russian firm called Cosmic Regatta. Asked whether the countries involved in the experiment knew about it, the company's deputy technical director, Oleg Saprykin, said: 'We've advertised our intentions on the Internet, we've told the media. I don't expect any protests. America financed part of the scientific research for this experiment, so they know what's going on.'
The reaction of colleagues overseas had been mixed, he added. 'On the one hand we get letters from astronomers giving us a telling-off for interfering with their observations. At the same time we get letters of gratitude from people thanking us for doing this and offering us work.' In thickly populated northern Europe, Mr Saprykin added, there would be lots of people to see the brightness of Znamya 2.5.
The idea behind the space lamp was eventually to use a network of reflectors to turn night into day over the cities of the Russian Arctic. But the technology involved is also vital to realise the long-held vision of generating electricity by channelling the sun's energy to ground stations. Making the pool of light stand still over one spot on the earth is exceptionally tricky, because it involves co-ordinating the movements of three objects moving at incredible speeds relative to each other - the sun, the earth, and the Progress spacecraft. The reflector has to be positioned in what scientists call the 'terminator', the orbital zone between day and night. Progress and Mir whiz overhead at 18,000 miles an hour relative to earth, so the reflector has to swivel rapidly to keep the sunlight on the same spot.
'There's a pretty limited period during which Progress can illuminate the earth - the period in which it crosses the terminator,' said Mr Saprykin. 'But the patch of light will be practically motionless, and will increase the illumination in the chosen area.'
The reflector will be aimed at the ground partly by instruments and partly by the Mir cosmonauts, Gennady Padalka and Sergei Avdeyev. One of the advantages of northern Europe compared to Russia, said Mr Saprykin, was that the cities shone more brightly at night, making it easier for the cosmonauts to direct the light.