Could the night sky light up with man-made meteor showers? A startup company in Japan says the answer is yes -- and they're closer to reality than you might think.
The company, ALE, has an ambitious plan to launch a series of small satellites into orbit starting in 2017. The satellites would then release hundreds of small particles towards Earth which, upon contact with the atmosphere, would ignite to create an artificial meteor shower. The company is planning a showy worldwide debut and aims to produce a massive man-made meteor shower at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, according to a report in Tech Times.
What's the science behind ALE's proposal? Meteors or shooting stars occur naturally when small space particles enter the Earth's atmosphere and burn brightly through the process of plasma emission.
"Our goal is to artificially recreate that process," ALE says on its website. "We will launch a satellite loaded with about five hundred to a thousand 'source particles' that become ingredients for a shooting star. When the satellite stabilizes in orbit, we will discharge the particles using a specially designed device on board. The particles will travel about one-thirds of the way around the Earth and enter the atmosphere. It will then begin plasma emission and become a shooting star." Following this logic, ALE says it can create meteor showers by launching multiple source particles at once.
The company -- run by a small group of aerospace engineers -- hopes to launch its first satellite in 2017 and a new one every year after that.
How would man-made shooting stars compare to the naturally occurring ones we've grown up seeing, when we're lucky on clear nights? According to ALE, laboratory tests show that the company's artificial stars would have an apparent magnitude of -1, which is brighter than the brightest star that can be observed in the night sky and visible even to those in cities. The company also boasts that its shooting stars could come in different colors; ALE says it can accomplish this by loading its satellites with various materials -- from lithium to cesium to copper -- which, when burned, emit distinct hues. Lastly, ALE says its shooting stars could be made to travel slower and longer across the night sky, redefining the fleeting nature of shooting stars.
The company lays out its vision in a video posted on YouTube:
Although the Tokyo-based company has yet to launch a single satellite, some observers are already commenting on the potential downsides.
"ALE suggests that in addition to controlling particles' color, it will eventually be able to draw pictures and display words on the surface of the atmosphere. And that can only lead to one thing -- inescapable outer-space advertising," David Morris recently wrote in FORTUNE.
ALE is part of a new wave of private companies, the most famous being SpaceX, trying to make inroads in space without dependence on public funding.
In a blog post, ALE's founder Lena Okajima said she hopes her company can "advance fundamental scientific research" through its privately funded space experiments. At the same time, she noted the obvious: that shooting stars have the potential to be a "high profit entertainment business."