Rather than forcing you to wait for one of Earth’s 22 or so natural annual meteor showers, it discharges an artificial one, on command.
Well, in theory, anyway. But we’re about to find out if it actually works.
From low-Earth orbit, at an altitude of about 400 kilometres (248.6 miles), the 65-kilogram (143.3-lb) satellite will eject a load of small metallic pellets, around 1 centimetre (less than an inch) in diameter, towards Earth.
What they’re made of is a trade secret, but they’re designed to burn up on atmospheric re-entry (like real meteors do), producing a shower of colourful streaks of light in the sky visible within a 200-kilometre (124-mile) radius.
And each satellite would carry enough pellets for multiple shows.
The project has been dubbed Sky Canvas.
“Compared to natural ones, our meteors are more massive and travel through the atmosphere more slowly, which allows them to be observed for a longer time,” Hiroki Kajihara of ALE told Wired.
But getting them to do so is technically quite difficult.
In order to burn up, they need sufficient velocity, so they need to be shot from the satellite, rather than simply released. And the mechanism to do so will need to have as little recoil as possible, to avoid sending the satellite shooting backwards into space.
The team has developed a pressure-driven gas tank that shoots the pellets out at 8 km per second, as reported by the BBC.
But, as ALE engineer Adrien Lemal told the BBC, “It’s something that has never been developed here on Earth and we need to make sure it works in space.”
The team wants to have the satellite operational by next year, when they hope to shower their artificial meteors over Hiroshima, 75 years after America dropped two atomic bombs to devastate the city in WWII.
But, just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should, and scientists are concerned that the spectacle would create significant problems, with very little gain.
The space around Earth is already crowded, both with defunct junk and active systems, and if anything goes awry with ALE’s satellite – such as spraying pellets at slightly the wrong angle – it could result in collisions with delicate satellite equipment.
“Before putting stuff in space … we need to think quite carefully about what we put up there and what we do,” Moriba Jah of the University of Arizona’s Space Object Behavioral Sciences program told National Geographic.
“You certainly don’t want to be doing that in the vicinity of other things.”
And, of course, there’s the problem of adding to light pollution, if only temporarily, which can play havoc on astronomical observations – although given the satellite only releases 15-20 pellets at a time, perhaps that wouldn’t be a huge problem.
But the trend of sending frivolous objects to space seems to be gaining traction in a worrying way.
A year ago it was a mirrored “disco” ball, launched quietly from New Zealand to orbit Earth for a few months. Another artist sent a giant shiny thing called the Orbital Reflector into space in December.
And our regulations – both local and international – are woefully behind when it comes to orbital space. Until they catch up, we can probably expect to see more and more companies trying to claim a slice of space while they can.
As for Sky Canvas, with so few meteors per launch, it honestly doesn’t sound that amazing to us. We’re probably better off waiting for the Perseids after all.