Artificial Meteor Showers Are the Atmospheric Spectacles No One Asked For

By George Dvorsky on at

Last week, an Epsilon-4 rocket blasted off from the JAXA Uchinoura Space Centre in Japan. Onboard was a satellite capable of generating artificial meteor showers by dropping tiny pellets from orbit. The resulting light show aimed to produce streaks brighter than natural shooting stars—but did anyone even care?

The project is called Sky Canvas, and it’s the brainchild of Astro Live Experiences, or ALE. The Tokyo-based company is hoping to produce a spectacular light show in 2020 above the skies of Hiroshima and the Seto Inland Sea. If Sky Canvas goes according to plan, the artificial meteor shower should be visible to millions of people across an area extending for 125 miles (200 km), according to the company’s FAQ.

Before any of this can happen, however, the company first has to test the concept. At 9:50 Thursday morning Japan time, JAXA launched a small-scale version of the platform required to make the spectacle possible. ALE will use the experience to collect as much data as possible and tweak as needed, reports C|net.

Here’s how it was supposed to work, as per the ALE website: Once the satellite reaches low Earth orbit, around 250 miles (400 kilometres) above the ground, it pooed out a stream of tiny pellets called “particles.” ALE claims it specially designed these particles to fall slowly through the atmosphere during re-entry, and to glow as brightly as possible. Each particle measured around a centimetre across (less than half an inch), and weighs just a few grams.

After their release, the artificial meteors were built to travel one-fifth of the way around Earth before entering the atmosphere. After doing so, the intense friction of re-entry would cause them to glow. The visible streaks were planned to last around 10 seconds or so, which is a bit longer than natural shooting stars. During a full-scale show, like the one being planned for 2020, a person should see around 5 to 20 artificial shooting stars during an average session, the length of which isn’t known. ALE said the spectacle should be bright enough to see even from brightly lit cities like Tokyo.

The particles were intended to burn up completely at heights between 37 to 50 miles (40 to 60 kilometres), well above the range of commercial planes, which typically fly at an altitude around 6 miles (10 kilometres). ALE expects “minimal” impacts to the environment from the ensuing “space dust” falling back to Earth.

The company said each satellite should be capable of “several thousand releases,” though it’s not clear how many particles will be released for a single show. Once the satellite is out of commission, it’ll disintegrate during re-entry to minimise space debris.

ALE said the purpose of the Sky Canvas Project is to

bring people all over the world together to witness an unprecedented, collective experience. Using space as our stage, we will constantly strive to bring to life new levels of entertainment while utilising its technology in the development of science.

Of course, natural meteor showers, such as the gorgeous and highly predictable Perseids and Leonids, are fully capable of achieving these precise purposes. As to how ALE’s tiny glowing balls could aid in the “development of science,” that’s not clear.

What is clear, however, is that ALE is itching to get an early piece of the space entertainment pie, which, sadly, is becoming a thing. As the company stated at its website, it’s currently “looking for sponsors” to host the spring 2020 event. It’s clearly looking for money, because in addition to “bringing the world together” it wants to be profitable.

Indeed, the whole putting-shit-into-space thing is getting out of hand. A year ago, for example, rocket startup Rocket Lab launched a three-foot-wide mirror ball into orbit called “Humanity Star.” And in December of last year, artist Trevor Paglen, with the help of the Nevada Museum of Art in the US, launched the Orbital Reflector—a shiny, temporary spaced-based art installation.

Neither of these promotional stunts produced much interest on Earth, and it’s likely ALE’s Sky Canvas Project, with its five to 20 shooting stars per session, won’t either. [Astro Live Experiences, C|net]

Featured image: Illustration: ALE