Russian 'star' makes light of night: Andrew Higgins reports from Moscow on a plan to use space mirrors to reflect sunlight round the Earth

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The Independent Online
THE SKIES above Europe were due to get a new star this morning - a Russian space mirror that could help end Siberia's long winter nights, illuminate whole towns in the Arctic Circle and propel future generations of space travellers to Mars and beyond.

If all went according to plan, the mirror - a 66ft disc of aluminium-coated plastic - was to act like a gigantic electric torch, reflecting a spot of sunlight on to Earth as it orbited overhead at nearly 18,000mph. 'This is a very important test,' says Vladmir Syromyatnikov, chief designer and mission chief at the Russian space company, NPO Energia. 'No one has done anything like it before.'

The reflecting disc, which weighs around 10lb, was launched into space last October. Folded up in a special pouch, it was sent up on an unmanned Russian cargo vessel, Progress, which docked with the orbiting space station Mir.

But only today, with Progress set to detach itself from Mir, was the reflective film to be unfolded like a Japanese fan to test the long-cherished dream of one day creating celestial searchlights - a string of orbiting mirrors to reflect sunlight on to dark patches of the Earth.

The principle is simple: just as the Moon is visible from Earth at night, orbiting man-made objects capture rays of sunlight too. The difficulty comes in trying to reflect and focus these rays back to Earth. Today's experiment - codenamed Znamya, or Banner - is also the first step towards a second, more distant hope: yacht-like space ships that can ride solar winds by means of massive sails. 'Space is like the sea,' says Dr Syromyatnikov. 'If you are clever enough, you should be able to sail between planets.'

Turning night into day and inter-planetary yachting are still a long way off. The light from Znamya was likely to be no brighter than two or three moons. None the less, Dr Syromyatnikov was hoping that it would be clearly visible as Znamya orbits, faintly illuminating a long swathe of the Earth from northern Spain to Belarus before dawn today.

It was to take only six minutes to cross Europe and then, somewhere near the border between the former Soviet republic of Belarus and Russia, Znamya and the cargo ship Progress will be incinerated as they re-enter the Earth's atmosphere.

The Znamya experiment, though modest, should help answer some fearsome technical problems: how to deploy a large fan-like structure as it speeds through space? How to retain the shape of a flat disc made of a material only 20 metric microns thick? How to focus sunlight captured in space on to a relatively narrow area on Earth?

Russian scientists have already designed a second space reflector 10 times larger than Znamya and capable of reflecting light several dozen times brighter than a single moon. 'It can make night seem like dawn,' predicts Dr Syromyatnikov. 'There will be enough light to read a newspaper.'

Whether Russian scientists get to test the new model, though, depends on whether they can overcome financial as well as technical hurdles. Despite harsh cuts in state funding, Russian scientists remain in the forefront of space research. The Znamya test follows only a week after Russia sent two more cosmonauts to the Mir space station and successfully tested a new docking system. Such proof of Russian potential, however, makes the lack of funds all the more frustrating. 'Our country is in trouble. Our space programme is in trouble too,' says Dr Syromyatnikov. 'We want not only to survive but to move forward.'

Funding for Znamya comes mainly from the state. Also providing money and equipment, though, is a private consortium, Space Regata, formed by a group of Russian space engineers in the hope of attracting foreign investment for an ambitious programme of research into solar sails and orbiting mirrors.

Dr Syromyatnikov believes space mirrors can help Siberia - and Canada - remove a huge obstacle to development: the lack of sunlight, particularly in winter when dusk begins as soon as dawn ends. Other regions, though, might also benefit. Scientists, he predicts, will be able to manipulate sunlight to give farmers more time to plant and harvest their crops. Sunlight reflected from space could also be used to light up construction sites and disaster areas at night.

But might not such dreams one day create an environmental nightmare? Dr Syromyatnikov thinks not: 'We should be careful, of course. But there is no real danger.' No amount of ingenuity, he says, can turn a winter's night in Siberia into a southern California noon.