When was the last time you stayed up late to view a meteor shower only to be disappointed by the less-than-spectacular results? For most of us, this is probably the norm rather than the exception. While astronomers can tell us when to look up, there's no guarantee that what we'll see will truly resemble a "shower."
But what if a true meteor shower could be scheduled and deliver on the oohs and aahs that come with the real thing? That's the idea behind a new project called Sky Canvas, which has made a bid to become part of the 2020 Olympic opening ceremonies in Tokyo. The brainchild of a Japanese startup called ALE, Sky Canvas aims to place a satellite in space containing 500 to 1,000 pieces of special pellets that, when released, would mimic the fiery glow of real shooting stars.
"In a laboratory setting, our artificial shooting stars have already achieved an apparent magnitude of -1. Even Sirius, the brightest star that can be observed in the night sky, has an apparent magnitude of -1.5," the firm’s website explains. "There’s no doubt that artificial shooting stars by ALE can clearly be seen anywhere, even in the city."
Once in orbit, the Sky Canvas satellite would be capable of launching a meteor shower over any region, with an expected viewing radius of 62 miles on the ground. Not only would the company's shooting stars be available in different colors (thanks to core elements like lithium, cesium, copper and more), but they would also last longer and streak more slowly. Should the weather on the ground not cooperate for viewing the show, the Sky Canvas system can be aborted up to 100 minutes before the main event.
Spectacular doesn't come cheap
As you might expect, creating a perfectly timed meteor shower isn't inexpensive. Each of the artificial shooting stars is expected to cost $8,100. Not counting satellite and launch costs, you're looking at a heavenly light show starting at just over $8 million. According to ALE founder Dr. Lena Okajima, who holds a Ph.D. in astronomy, the idea behind Sky Canvas is to use celestial entertainment to fund real science.
"This type of project is new in the sense in that it mixes astronomy and the entertainment business," she writes in her bio. "These shooting stars that are born through science function as a high-profit entertainment business, and the resulting funds will serve to further advance fundamental scientific research."
There are also questions about the soundness of the idea.
"Before putting stuff in space—and especially doing something like [ALE’s satellite] — we need to think quite carefully about what we put up there and what we do," Moriba Jah, director of the University of Arizona’s Space Object Behavioral Sciences program and an expert on space junk, told National Geographic. "You certainly don’t want to be doing that in the vicinity of other things."
A different aim
According to Core77, the team is particularly interested in figuring out new ways to safely dispose of space junk like decommissioned satellites and other orbiting refuse.
So when might we expect to see Sky Canvas light up the night for the first time? Other than a potential moment at the 2020 Olympics, ALE aims to launch its first satellite in late-2018, with plans to launch at least one craft in the following years.
"I'm very excited about this project, not only because it will turn my childhood dream into a reality, but also because it can contribute to fundamental scientific research in a new form without relying on public funds and donations," Okajima added.
Check out the company's concept video for the Sky Canvas project in the video at top.