Those Crazy Russians

What Russians can do with a space station and a bottle of vodka.

I wanted to write an introduction to this article, but
there isn’t much to do aside from wondering how many vodka shots it
takes to dream up something like this.

The Guardian February 3, 1999

Russia’s giant
moonbeam aims to light a global path

James Meek in Moscow and Ian Traynor in Bonn on a bid to bring
heavenly glow down to earth

In the most audacious attempt to rearrange the natural order of the
heavens since God said ‘Let there be light’, Russian scientists are to
flood parts of Europe tomorrow night with the glow from an artificial
moon. If all goes according to plan, a pool of light roughly nine miles
wide and 25 miles long, projected from space, will illuminate a swath of
north Germany and Belgium shortly after sunset. If it is a clear night
the light, as bright as 10 moons, should be visible almost 200 miles
from its epicentre. The cosmic spotlight will be projected from a giant
mirrored parasol attached to a Russian Progress ‘space tug’ detached
from the Mir space station. Cosmonauts on Mir will direct the device to
reflect the sun’s rays on to the earth.

Over a 13-hour period the experiment, known as Znamya 2.5, will
illuminate six ‘zones’ on earth for four minutes each. Three of the
zones are in southern Russia, northern Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The
fourth zone, between Frankfurt in Germany and Liege in Belgium, will be
lit from 6.50pm to 6.54pm local time. The light will later appear between
Quebec and Winnipeg in Canada, before hitting the final zone between
Calgary, and Devils Lake in the United States.

The
only problem is that nobody outside Russia seems to know anything about
the experiment. ‘I’ve heard nothing about this, but that’s not unusual
because we often learn of the Russian space experiments from the papers
or the TV,’ said Raimund Lentzen, the head of the German Astronauts’
Office near Cologne. A spokesman for the technology ministry in Bonn was
equally nonplussed. ‘It’s a bit early for April Fool jokes but this
sounds like one,’ he said.

Like the Russians have enough cash to even print an instruction manual! What will they think of next??!

‘It shouldn’t be a problem,’ said Ulf Mehrboldt, a German astronaut
who has flown on two US space missions and spent one month on Mir in
1994. ‘They don’t need permission: the sun shines on Germany, too, and
you can’t ban that. ‘The reflective parasol, about 25 yards in diameter,
was built by a Russian firm called Cosmic Regatta. Asked whether the
countries involved in the experiment knew about it, the company’s deputy
technical director, Oleg Saprykin, said: ‘We’ve advertised our
intentions on the Internet, we’ve told the media. I don’t expect any
protests. America financed part of the scientific research for this
experiment, so they know what’s going on.’

The reaction of colleagues overseas had been mixed, he added. ‘On the
one hand we get letters from astronomers giving us a telling-off for
interfering with their observations. At the same time we get letters of
gratitude from people thanking us for doing this and offering us work.’
In thickly populated northern Europe, Mr Saprykin added, there would be
lots of people to see the brightness of Znamya 2.5.

The idea behind the space lamp was eventually to use a network of
reflectors to turn night into day over the cities of the Russian Arctic.
But the technology involved is also vital to realise the long-held
vision of generating electricity by channelling the sun’s energy to
ground stations. Making the pool of light stand still over one spot on
the earth is exceptionally tricky, because it involves co-ordinating the
movements of three objects moving at incredible speeds relative to each
other – the sun, the earth, and the Progress spacecraft. The reflector
has to be positioned in what scientists call the ‘terminator’, the
orbital zone between day and night. Progress and Mir whiz overhead at
18,000 miles an hour relative to earth, so the reflector has to swivel
rapidly to keep the sunlight on the same spot.

‘There’s a pretty limited period during which Progress can illuminate
the earth – the period in which it crosses the terminator,’ said Mr
Saprykin. ‘But the patch of light will be practically motionless, and
will increase the illumination in the chosen area.’

The reflector will be aimed at the ground partly by instruments and
partly by the Mir cosmonauts, Gennady Padalka and Sergei Avdeyev. One of
the advantages of northern Europe compared to Russia, said Mr Saprykin,
was that the cities shone more brightly at night, making it easier for
the cosmonauts to direct the light.