Forget Streetlights, China is Launching Artificial Moons in Urban Areas

By Amber Jorgenson | October 22, 2018 2:12 pm

(Credit: NASA)

In one Chinese city, costly streetlights could soon be a thing of the past.

By 2020, the Tian Fu New Area Science Society plans to launch an artificial moon to light up the night sky. If the plan goes through, the so-called “illumination satellite” would orbit above the Chinese city of Chengdu and glow in conjunction with the actual moon, but shine eight times brighter. The organization says it will launch three more satellites in 2022 — potentially replacing streetlights in urban areas. The plans were announced by Wu Chunfeng, head of the society, at an innovation conference in Chengdu on October 10.

Will it actually work, though? Discover takes a look at the science.

Chunfeng told China Daily that the satellite, launching from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, will orbit about 300 miles (500 kilometers) above the city and use its mirror-like coating to reflect sunlight down to Earth.

Despite shining light in a similar way, the satellite boasts one advantage that the moon doesn’t — human control. Chunfeng says that both the location and brightness of the human-made moon can be changed, and that it can be completely shut off if necessary. And since the satellite is mobile, it can assist in disaster relief by beaming light on areas that lost power.

Cutting Costs

The lunar project aims to cut down on costly streetlights in China’s bustling cities. By lighting up just 20 square miles (50 square kilometers) of Chengdu’s night sky, the mini-moon could save the city an estimated 1.2 billion yuan ($174 million) each year.

The three follow-up moons, though, will be able to cover much more ground. The trio will take turns, based on who’s facing the Sun, beaming light on the city streets. Working together, they’ll be able to illuminate 2,000 to 4,000 square miles (3,600 to 6,400 square kilometers) for up to 24 hours.

Potential Pitfalls

Plans this big are bound to be met with some apprehension, and the mini-moons are no exception.

In the 1990s, an unsuccessful attempt was made by the Russian Federal Space Agency to launch similar reflective orbiters. After one of their satellites failed during deployment, they ended up scrapping the project.

Chunfeng also said that people have concerns about the moons’ impact on the sleep patterns of humans and animals, but from the sounds of it, the group thinks that the burden will be minimal.

“We will only conduct our tests in an uninhabited desert, so our light beams will not interfere with any people or Earth-based space observation equipment,” Chunfeng told China Daily. “When the satellite is in operation, people will see only a bright star above, and not a giant moon as imagined.”

Apprehension aside, the mission could pioneer a new wave of space energy usage if it ends up being successful. And if not, we’ll at least have a few extra moons to gaze up at.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • newpapyrus

    NASA proposed similar concepts way back in the 1970s as possible missions for the– then– future Space Shuttle. But I wonder how such orbiting mirrors would effect the light pollution that already plagues our view of the celestial skies at night.


  • jonathanpulliam

    It’s an irresponsible act hostile to PRC China’s neighbors, and to the security of the world community at large. In keeping with PRC China’s poor human-rights conduct and its flagrant disregard for world normative human rights standards.

  • OWilson

    Goodbye, “starry, starry night”? :)

    • Maia

      We are already waving goodbye…but this horrible idea will hasten that. The Milky Way Gazer night picnic is truly an endangered species.

      • OWilson

        It’s been replaced by those long exposure, color enhanced photos we get second hand from the media.

        While they are in themselves interesting, they evoke only the same limited human response as a photo of a fresh main lobster. or a photo of Elvis.

        Not the same Oohs! and Ohs! from actually experiencing it for yourself! :)

        • Maia

          Oh, indeed, not even close. But it’s my devoutly to be wished reality that this “difference” might be, shall we say, remembered? This remembering might be near the place where all the warring opposites might make peace…at least for awhile?

          • OWilson

            I doubt it. “Remembering” today is considered subjective, and is a casualty of a society that is at war with itself, and its history.

            I spent most of my life seeking harmony and peace, but I found that compromise and going along for the ride, often had me denying the realities of a successful life gained through experience and learning and travel. A ride that inevitably never ended well for all concerned :)

            No longer bowing to “compromise” for the sake of approval, I now spend a little of my retirement offering only one obscure man’s true opinions to the failing societies I have left behind, always challenging the conventional wisdom and provoking discussion. The responses I get, both positive and negative are very satisfying, if not enlightening :)

            I choose now to live with folks where politics does not divide, where people are in sync with nature’s bounty and dangers, are generally happy and free, united and supportive against the real day to day challenges of life. Where hurricanes and flash floods are literally brushed off with a smile.

            Truly, a tropical non-racist Paradise, with a society that shares my basic worldview… at least for a while? :)

            (and almost every night a majestic view of the night sky!)

          • Maia

            Your Paradise sounds, well, paradisical, and I am glad you have found it. But alas, where I and most of us live is not, and the night sky is obscured with unnecessary light, mostly because people fear darkness in a reflexive way, in the way people used to (and many still do) fear forests with wild animals in them. The wild animals in my life are all birds and they literally keep my spirits up— while the world seems to go more haywire every day.

          • OWilson

            Paradise can be found within us all. Let your heart and mind soar with the birds. They work hard, fight to protect their territory, are completely free and independent and still find time to sing, find a mate and raise a family.They do just fine without politicians, drugs, schools, daycare, welfare, and have been around longer that humans :)

  • Uncle Al

    illumination satellite” would orbit above the Chinese city of Chengdu” 30.658611, 104.064722 Good luck on orbiting “above Chendu” – and to its crops. Disruption of the seasonal light/dark ratio cycle will prevent flowering.


    • jmullaney

      Yes, how will they keep a satellite above the city. It can’t be in geosynchronous orbit and be “over” that city. And even for cities under a geosynchronous satellite-moon, the satellite would be too far away. It would have to be gigantic. So they would instead need a low-orbiting satellite – with the orbit picked so that the satellite is passing over the city at dusk. Because it is low-orbiting, it will also be fast-moving. So they will need a number of satellites so that the satellites can take turns sweeping across the sky to light the city. Also, because they are low-orbiting, they would be in sunlight for only so many hours after sunset. So the city would still need street lights for the remainder of the night. But it still might be a good idea if the satellites save significant energy. China has only one time zone. So much of its population ends up with a large portion of their work day in the dark.

  • Erik Bosma

    People of the night – rebel !!

    • Maia

      Fist up!

  • Bob McDonough

    Where’s the “light pollution” crowd when you need them?

    • Maia

      A truly hideous idea to light up the sky all night, ignoring the needs of plants, animals and humans. The moon does not shine evenly every night, sometimes it shines in the daytime, and it’s brightness changes constantly, with some days of dark—how many enthusiasts for saving money are going to care about any of that? (Rhetorical question.)

  • Lorie Franceschi

    What about when those “moons” are over other countries? It was in the story that they said they would orbit at only 300 miles. That is not a stationary orbit. This is not a great idea to the rest of the world.


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