This Chinese city wants to launch an ‘artificial moon’ to replace street lights

The streets of Chengdu in western China could soon be lit up by an artificial satellite moon in the night-time, rather than the more conventional streetlights, if an ambitious plan by a private aerospace company gets the go-ahead.

The thinking is to save a hefty sum in electricity costs, according to Wu Chunfeng, chairman of the Chengdu Aerospace Science and Technology Microelectronics System Research Institute Co., who is behind the scheme.

Rather than using up energy here on Earth, the satellite would reflect the Sun’s rays from the other side of the planet back on to Chengdu.

Details are thin on the ground, but it sounds as though solar panel-like wings with a special reflective coating would be used to redirect sunbeams from space.

The illumination on the ground would be about eight times what you would expect from the actual Moon, Chunfeng says.

Speaking at an entrepreneur conference, Wu said the satellite will allow the light to be carefully controlled and kept to an area 10-80 kilometres (around 6-50 miles) in diameter. The light wouldn’t be strong enough to interfere with nocturnal wildlife activities – or at least no more than streetlights, anyway – backers of the project say.

And the “dusk-like glow” that the fake moon would create would also be something of a tourist attraction for the area, according to the developers. The satellite could be picked up on a telescope, Fortune reports, if you don’t want to make the trip to Chengdu.

Apparently the necessary technology has already been tested and the satellite itself could be ready to take to orbit as early as 2020.

Based on a report from the People’s Daily in China, inspiration came from an unnamed French artist who wanted to hang a necklace made of mirrors up above Earth to reflect sunshine on Paris at night.

And the idea actually has some precedence, in a way: in the Norwegian town of Rjukan, which is so deep in a valley it gets no sunlight in the winter months, three computer-controlled mirrors sit on top of a nearby mountain to reflect the Sun’s rays on to the town.

Of course pulling off the same trick in space requires a lot more technical expertise and a lot more money – unless the plan proves to be suitably cost-effective, it’s unlikely to ever get off the ground (quite literally).

Previous attempts to harness the Sun’s rays from space to reflect sunlight back to Earth have been hampered by mechanical and manufacturing difficulties. We’ll have to wait and see whether Chunfeng and his team can actually pull this one off.

And if the satellite does get the thumbs up from the authorities, and enough funding behind it, it’ll have to get in line: we’re seeing satellites arriving in orbit to do everything from find aliens to provide internet.

So, we’ll have to wait a couple of years to see whether this idea really does take off – but for now add it to the list of weird and wonderful space innovation ideas scientists are exploring.

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