The space mirror, known as Znamya (banner), unfolded from an unmanned cargo ship, Progress, early yesterday morning shortly after undocking from the Russian space station Mir.
The experiment marks the first step towards a decades-old dream of one day using reflecting sheets to illuminate polar winters in the Arctic Circle and perhaps even propel yacht-like space craft between planets. Other applications include space spotlights to shine at night on disaster areas, on construction sites or on fields during harvest time.
'It was definitely a success,' said Viktor Pavlov, an engineer at mission control outside Moscow, 'There are a few theoretical problems but our cosmonauts on Mir saw a reflected sunbeam playing on the surface of the earth.'
A beam of reflected sunlight, equal in brightness to about three moons, raced across Europe from northern Spain to Belarus before the mirror disintegrated upon reentry to the earth's atmosphere. Thick clouds, however, obscured the light over much of its path.
Only in southern France, in Toulouse, was the beam clearly visible. Residents reported seeing 'luminous diamonds' as Znamya hurtled by overhead. Because of the speed of the mirror, travelling at some 18,000mph, the reflected sunbeam appeared on earth as no more than a flash lasting less than half a second.
The mirror, 20 metres across, had been designed to unfurl into a flat disc shape. But pictures of the operation transmitted back to Moscow by cosmonauts on board Mir showed a wobbly daisy instead. According to the scientists, this may actually be an improvement on the original design.
'There are still lots of small things to be worked out but the daisy shape proved to be better than the disc,' said Mr Pavlov. The next task for Russian scientists, watched with envy by American space buffs who have lobbied for years for a similar experiment, is to build a larger mirror and find funding to put it into space. 'In our country, of course,' said Mr Pavlov, 'the main problem now is money.'
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