The phrase “truth is stranger than fiction” could never have been more relevant than when news broke out about China working on an artificial moon that is set to be launched as early as 2020.
According to a report by Al Jazeera, the “illumination satellites” are being developed in Chengdu, Sichuan to replace streetlamps and reduce electricity costs in urban areas.
The project was first announced by Tian Fu New Area Science Society on October 10 at an entrepreneurship and innovation conference in Chengdu.
According to Wu Chunfeng, head of Tian Fu New Area Science Society, the first of these man-made moons will be launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center, Sichuan and provided the first test goes well, three more will follow in 2022.
Reportedly, the satellites will be able to reflect eight times more sunlight than Earth’s natural moon and could phase out streetlamps by illuminating an area of 50 square kilometers, thus saving almost 1.2bn yuan, i.e. $170m, a year in electricity costs for Chengdu.
In an interview with China Daily, Wu said that the first launch will be experimental, and the 2022 satellites
will be the real deal with great civic and commercial potential.
He is also hopeful that the light from these man-made moons will help aid rescue efforts in disaster zones specifically during blackouts.
Other universities and institutes like China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp and the Harbin Institute of Technology are also joining hands with Chengdu in developing the illumination satellites, along with Tian Fu New Area Science Society.
However, concerns have already been raised about the effects of these “fake moons” on the Earth, with astronomers warning against up to fifty times worse light pollution.
John Barentine, Director of Public Policy at the International Dark-Sky Association, told Forbes in an interview,
The Chengdu ‘artificial moon’ would have the effect of significantly increasing the nighttime brightness of an already light-polluted city, creating problems for both Chengdu’s residents, who are unable to screen out the unwanted light, as well as for the urban wildlife population that can’t simply go inside and close the shutters.
Explaining by how much light pollution will go up, Barentine says, “For purposes of comparison, the sky brightness over central Chengdu due to skyglow in is predicted to be 5.43 mcd/m2, or about 18.25 magnitudes per square arcsecond, using satellite data obtained in 2015.” Assuming that light is radiated uniformly across the night sky, that represents an illuminance of about 0.00543 cd/m2 * 2π steradians = 0.034 lux, according to his calculations. “Therefore, the ‘artificial moon’ would increase the illumination level at the ground by a factor of about 47,” he says.
“Stargazers already avoid a Full Moon because its light pollution makes stars much harder to see, but fake moons will cause much more light pollution than anyone is saying,” he adds.
Turns out, this is not the first attempt by humans at creating their own extraterrestrial source of light. In 1993, Russian scientists launched a project called Znamya in which they sent out space mirrors- 20-25metre wide solar mirrors- into space to reflect sunlight back to Earth.
Earlier in 1929, German physicist Hermann Oberth had proposed a space station with a 100m concave mirror that would reflect sunlight onto a specified point on Earth, the idea of which was later adopted by German scientists to attempt a “sun gun” that could,according to their calculations, burn entire cities during World War II. Fortunately, this concept could not materialize at the time and when questioned by officers of the United States, the scientists claimed the gun could be completed in 50-100 years.
Well, whether or not China should finally fulfill this apparently long-standing human effort, it sure would be a spectacle to see more than one moon in the night sky.