One of China’s mega-metropolises has a unique plan for saving on the electricity costs of maintaining street lamps at night: by launching “artificial moons” into space.
State media recently reported that a research organization in the southwestern city of Chengdu City in Sichuan Province, called Tian Fu New Area Science Society, has developed a kind of space satellite with a reflective coating that can deflect sunlight back to Earth, similar to how the moon shines, according to an Oct. 19 report by China Daily, China’s state-run English-language newspaper.
Citing Wu Chunfeng, head of the Tian Fu research center, the report notes that the satellite has eight times the luminescence of the real moon, and can cover 10 to 80 square kilometers (about 4 to 31 square miles).
The city has plans to launch an “artificial moon” into space by 2020, which can save about 1.2 billion yuan (about $172 million) a year in electricity costs, according to China Daily. If the first one is successful, there are plans to launch three more by 2022.
The project is supported by the state. The China Daily report cites China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, a state-owned company and the main contractor for China’s space program, as a partner.
An Oct. 10 news article on the opening of the Tian Fu research center also notes that the organization was created as part of an initiative to bring together “military and civilian innovations.” The research center was created by a microelectronics company, of which Wu serves as Chinese Communist Party secretary.
But the invention might end up doing more harm than good. John Barentine, director of the International Dark-Sky Association, a U.S. nonprofit research organization on light pollution, calculated that the luminescence of an artificial satellite equivalent to eight times the moon would be similar to the intensity of light in a very dense urban area.
“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,” Barentine told Forbes in an Oct. 18 report.
Artificial light can interfere with many animals’ natural cycles, such as sea turtles that hatch on beaches and return to sea by detecting the moon’s brightness; migratory birds that rely on moonlight and starlight to navigate; and insects that are drawn to light (artificial lights can heat and burn them), according to the International Dark-Sky Association.
“The ‘artificial moon’ would increase the illumination level at the ground by a factor of about 47,” Barentine added.
An article published in Chinese state-run media Xinhua tried to dispel the concerns of effects on the ecosystem by noting that the satellite’s strength of lighting and duration of lighting were adjustable, claiming that the luminescence would minimal, “equivalent to the sky during summertime dusk.”
But that amount of lighting is likely to still affect natural circadian rhythms.
Back in the 1990s, Russian scientists developed a similar contraption, called the Znamya. The Russians had planned on launching a banner into space, which would unfurl into a 65-foot-diameter disk coated with an aluminum-coated plastic film.