Skywatchers hoping to see a shooting star may soon be able to order them on demand.
A group of Japanese scientists say they have a shooting-star secret formula -- an undisclosed chemical mixture packed into tiny, inch-wide balls that the team hopes to eject from a satellite to create on-demand meteor showers, AFP reports.
A Japanese start-up company called ALE is partnering with researchers at multiple universities to create the artificial meteor showers, which will cost around $8,100 per meteor for buyers. The researchers said the manufactured meteors would be bright enough to be visible even in areas with light pollution, like Tokyo, assuming clear weather. [Meteor Shower Quiz: How Well Do You Know 'Shooting Stars'?]
Natural meteor showers occur when dust and debris from space are heated by friction as they pass through Earth's atmosphere. Meteors often burn up completely before reaching the ground. (If they do strike the Earth, they become known as meteorites.) The artificial meteoroids, which would be launched from a microsatellite 20 inches (50 centimeters) across, would burn up on entry as well, after racing in at 5 miles (about 8 kilometers) per second, according to the piece by AFP reporter Miwa Suzuki.
The cubelike satellite that would release the artificial shooting stars is being developed by ALE in conjunction with the outside researchers. The satellite would orbit the Earth from north to south at an altitude of about 250 to 310 miles (400 to 500 km) for months at a time before falling back to Earth and burning up.
ALE is keeping the chemical makeup of the pellets it would launch secret, but the company revealed that it is considering different chemical compositions to create streaks of different colors.
"Making the sky a screen is this project's biggest attraction as entertainment," Lena Okajima, the company's founder and CEO, told AFP. "It's a space display." In case of bad weather, the shooting stars could be called off up to 100 minutes before the planned spectacle.
And while the artificial meteor showers would be beautiful, they could also be valuable to scientists. An aerospace engineer at Tokyo Metropolitan University, Hironori Sahara, told AFP that analyzing the light from a meteor can tell scientists about the temperature, density and movement of the atmosphere at that elevation. Natural meteor showers are unpredictable, but scientists would know exactly where to look to study ALE's meteors.
It's a particularly valuable opportunity, because the region of sky that these meteors are expected to pass through is too low for spacecraft and too high for weather balloons to study. As ALE talks with investors and develops the technology further, scientists and skywatchers may decide to take advantage of meteor showers on demand. But the company may never be able to deliver the thrill of spotting a natural meteor, free of charge.