Russian Space Scientists Seek Eternal Light




Deep in the bowels of the Russian space industry, visionary scientists have a plan to put an end to the long dark of winter.


It is all so simple. Using a chain of huge mirrors suspended above Earth and angled to catch the sun's rays, they would save billions in heating and lighting bills.


They see their big chance this November when Russia is due to launch the next Progress cargo ship to take supplies to the Mir space station. Why not just attach a giant reflective membrane to the rocket, set it loose and then bring hours of extra daylight to Russia's northern cities?


"We are pioneers in the field," said Vladimir Siromyadnikov, the director of the Russian Space Regatta Consortium. "If the experiment goes according to plan, we propose to send dozens more craft into space in the future on a permanent basis."


The spacecraft, known as Znamya, or Banner, 2.5, armed with concertina flaps similar to a Japanese fan, is already half-completed, Siromyadnikov said. His group claims to have the backing of some of Russia's biggest space companies, including RSC Energiya, the manufacturer of Mir.


Because he was interviewed by telephone, it was hard to judge whether Siromyadnikov was a mad scientist standing in a dark laboratory with bubbling test tubes amid sparking cathodes.


But the Russian Space Agency, which administers Russia's space program, is a little skeptical of Siromyadnikov and his consortium. While the agency acknowledges the project, it says that Znamya will not be going up on Progress this fall.


"There is no place for that mirror aboard the cargo ships because we can only ferry the most vital supplies to the station," spokesman Sergei Gorbunov was quoted by news agencies as saying. "We are struggling for funds to send regular supplies to the station, let alone the Znamya."


The space agency is desperately short of funds for more mainstream projects like the space station. But Siromyadnikov dismisses this as small-mindedness.


"Think what it will mean for the future of mankind," he said. "No more electricity bills, no more long, dark winters. This is a serious breakthrough for technology."


Despite the similarity to the plot of the James Bond film "Diamonds Are Forever," the concept is not completely unfeasible.This is not the first time the Russians have brightened lives across the planet. In 1993, Russia actually launched Znamya 2 into orbit, where it sent a brief beam of sunlight across central Europe just before dawn.


Although the experiment was hampered by a thick cloud belt that covered much of the continent, observers in France, southern Germany, Poland and Belarus caught a glimpse of the flashing light as the mirror passed overhead. Seven minutes later, Znamya 2 was timed to self-combust.


"The conditions in 1993 were not ideal," Siromyadnikov said. "But despite the clouds, we proved that it is possible to imitate the moon and provide sunlight in the middle of the night."


The updated model will last for a full 24 hours, circling the planet up to 16 times, Siromyadnikov said.


If the experiment is successful, dozens of similar mirrors could circle the Earth by the middle of the next century, the project's director said.


Environmentalists, however, are incensed by the scheme. "This is hare-brained science-fiction thought up by a bunch of crazy astronauts," said Dr. Gareth Jones, an expert on environmental issues at Britain's Strathclyde University.


"Some years ago, the Russians came up with the idea of diverting the course of their rivers to irrigate the desert," he said. "The effect of Znamya will be just as catastrophic for the environment."


Apart from heating up the polar ice caps, which will cause large sections of the Earth's surface to disappear under water, the extra daylight would disrupt the breeding patterns of birds and animals, Jones said.


"The extra daylight would mean they would reproduce more often, but winters would be just as cold as before," he said. "Their offspring would be born in the middle of winter, making it much harder for them to survive."


But some residents of the far north welcome the idea of more sunshine. "In the winter we never get more than four or five hours of daylight," said Stella McDonald, a student nurse from the Shetland Islands, more than 200 kilometers north of Scotland. Sometimes the street lights are kept on all day, she said.


"There's a general low feeling through the winter months," Mcdonald said. "There's more depression, more suicide, and more people tend to hit the bottle. If we had a bit more daylight, maybe there wouldn't be so many alcoholics in the far north."