Space cases

The Russian space program tries something really, really weird.

NOTHING AGAINST JOHN GLENN. But in the field of recent space-exploration achievements, Seattle earthlings might first consider a tip of their rain caps to Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka. Two days before Glenn rocketed off in his orthopedic gravity boots, Padalka was helping dock a pilotless Russian cargo ship arriving at his aging Mir space station. Inside was a gift meant not only for chilly Siberia but rainy Seattle: more sunlight.

Or rather, more moonshine—a device that could send a warming new beam shining down through the Seattle night. If the experiment comes off as planned, Padalka and fellow cosmo Sergei Avdeyev should have the rays showering us by February, when they are to unfold an 82-foot reflective solar panel—one of many intended eventually to heat Russia's poor, shivering arctic residents during winter nights. The wide, telescoping beam from the aluminum space mirror is also expected to warm and brighten other northern regions of Earth, including Vancouver and Calgary. Its one major American urban target is Seattle.

Solar rays? From Russia, with love? All John Glenn brought us back was that lousy T-shirt that says, "Grandpas do it in space."

According to information provided by the Russian Space Regatta Consortium (SRC), this Russia-US war on cold could lead to the eventual launch of 200 similar reflectors that would brighten arctic darkness and lightly saut頓eattle and its environs. (Well, maybe. In response to our query, E. Ryabko, the SRC's deputy director, writes from Russia: "We have received your e-mail and found it utterly interesting.")

The SRC is the world's only organization currently developing solar craft, solar mirrors, and space illumination systems. Licensed by the Russian space agency, the SRC deployed its first operational test project on board the Progress M-15 cargo spacecraft in 1993, a 20-meter solar sail called Znamya-2. A 70-meter reflector, Znamya-3, is in the works. In between is Znamya-2.5, the folded mirror that arrived at Mir October 27.

Sergie Gromov, a spokesman for Russian Energia rocket corporation, recently told Russian reporters that "next February, for a few days, people will be able to see a second small moon in the sky. After a command from mission control, the membrane will open and create a solar veil above the craft reaching 25 meters in diameter."

A group of Russian space engineers plans to stand in the reflected rays on the ground, showing that the beams are safe. "It will not be dangerous for people or nature. . . . Snow will not melt, water in lakes will not boil," Gromov said.

US radio correspondent David McGuffin, who recently reported the story on a syndicated Marketplace segment, says via e-mail from Moscow that "Seattle just happens to be in the path the mirror will take, which also covers a wide band of Russia. This is a test run they hope to use to raise money to put many more, and bigger, mirrors in space in the future." McGuffin says he first learned of the venture last June from a story in New Scientist magazine. Written by Mark Ward, the story begins: "London, Brussels, Seattle, and Kiev will be just some of the cities lit up from space in November [the original mirror-unfolding date] if an ambitious Russian experiment goes to plan."

THE ALUMINIZED MYLAR mirror apparently is to be mounted on the nose of the Progress 40 supply craft and remotely controlled by the Mir crew (using a joystick) to direct light onto northern hemisphere cities.

Some critics are hoping the mirror cracks. "Astronomers are aghast," notes Ward. "If the idea catches on, they say, it could spell the end of ground-based astronomy by dazzling their telescopes." Among others, Daniel Green of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics cringes "to think that we could lose the night sky because of all these companies with their brain-dead ideas."

On the plus side, could a Russian mirror field eventually cast a warmer clime over soggy Puget Sound? That's a distant possibility, but correspondent McGuffin says for now the life of Znamya-2.5 will be brief: 16 trips around the globe for 24 hours. Then kaput! "I'm afraid," he adds, "it won't be T-shirt-and-sunglasses weather year-round in Seattle any time soon."

 
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