A Giant Reflecting Device Would Be A Bad Idea

5 February 1999

By Stentor Danielson

When I saw the news item, titled "Mir Crew Hopes to Light Earth," I knew I had to write about it. Though the story did not have the obvious significance of such past commentary topics as "global warming"and "Saddam Hussein,"it did have one compelling quality. That quality can only be described, given the constraints of the English language, as "weirdness."

The gist of the issue is that the crew of the Russian space station Mir plans to unfold an 83-foot wide reflective device that will function similar to the moon, sending a beam of second-hand sunlight down to the Earth. The space mirror should be visible from earth as a shooting star-like object over an as yet undetermined part of the world. If this experiment is successful, the Russians plan to continue work with such devices and eventually create huge orbiting reflectors to illuminate northern cities plagued by winter darkness. And so that you don 't dismiss this undertaking as frivolous, I must mention that this will be the second giant reflective device that the Russians have launched into space. The earlier trial, in 1993, was executed poorly, making the device difficult to see.

Though it is fun to say "giant reflective device"in the newspaper, I fail to see how any other benefit can come from this undertaking. The idea of space reflectors bringing additional sunlight to the world is, unfortunately, doomed to remain a feature of tabloids and second rate science fiction. First off, the moon - nature 's giant reflective device - is many, many, many times bigger than any man-made device, reflective or not. And even given its incredible size, the moon is no match for an ordinary 60-watt light bulb in terms of nighttime illumination. I don 't know about you, but I 've never heard anyone say, "Well, the moon 's out, so I guess we can turn out the porch light."

So, the space mirrors envisioned by the Russians would have to be absolutely huge, which means it would require absolutely huge amounts of money to build them. Even in Russia, I am certain it 's cheaper for everybody to buy a few light bulbs than to construct a second moon.

Once the hypothetical reflective device is in place, other problems are right around the corner. For example, you may have noticed that the sun is warm, and on some days downright hot. And to do any good, the space mirror would have to be more on the order of the sun than the moon as far as illumination. With all of the concern today over global warming, why would the Russians want to shoot the earth with more heat? While I 'm sure that the citizens of Moscow wouldn 't mind some 60-degree days in January, what do they say to the citizens of St. Petersburg when that city is flooded by the rising sea levels caused by the melting Siberian permafrost? And I won 't even mention the effects on innocent coastal nations whose space programs wisely left their mirrors on their cars and in their bathrooms.

Luckily, the full-fledged space mirror is far from completion, and given the state of the Russian economy, it won 't be up for a while, if ever. But the existence of such a plan is still troubling. Perhaps the Russians just like to dream of a future technological paradise, when at least some of the difficulties of their nation can be put to rest. After all, Isaac Asimov - the Shakespeare of science fiction - was born in what was then the Soviet Union. Or maybe it was just a ploy to get public and media attention, like the John Glenn mission a few months back. (If so, I guess it worked!)

I have nothing against technological progress or the space program in general. But I sincerely hope NASA does not try to launch a giant reflective device of its own, in an effort to bring some light to winter-bound Anchorage.

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