Fireworks In Space: Japan Developing Artificial Shooting Stars

Our skies are about to get more colorful in the future as Japanase start-up, ALE is set to introduce the first ever man-made shooting star to the world.

The space start-up founded by Lena Okajima in 2011 is developing a technology that would allow them to send out a satellite into space and orbit the Earth which will shoot out man-made meteoroids half the size of a ping pong ball at certain locations around the world, effectively mimicking a meteor shower.

“Imagine a future, where you can use our meteors for international fireworks displays, a proposal for marriage, or a special memorial,” says Shinsuke Abe, ALE’s Research Director and Nihon University Aerospace Engineering professor.

The company plans to send out its first satellite into orbit in 2018 and have its debut show when the satellite has reached its designated position in the same time frame.

“We want people to look up, not down at the ground,” says Abe. “People in Japan are so busy everyday and they need more culture and science in their lives to bring them closer to nature, and to relax.”


Childhood Curiosity


Okajima grew up in Tottori, a prefecture 160 km northwest of Osaka. Being the least populous prefecture in Japan, Tottori enjoyed a nice view of frequent display of shooting stars with the annual Leonid meteor shower being the most notable one. This was where Okajima’s fascination with space began.

“Okajima watched meteor showers when she was younger, but living in Tokyo (as an adult) she couldn’t really see them, so that played a part in her inspiration,” says Rie Yamamoto, Global Strategy Director for ALE.

“A lot of people have thought about (creating fake meteor showers) but Okajima was the first one to invest years of research into this.”

Having a PhD in Astronomy, Okajima quit her job as an investment banker and founder ALE in 2011, collaborating with academics from multiple institutions and received private funding to get her started.


Sending Their First Satellite Into Orbit


The first order of business is to send their first satellite into Earth’s orbit which take several months to reach its target altitude of 500 km to the thermosphere, the second highest layer of the planet’s atmosphere. Each satellite is estimated to maintain orbit for about 4 years carrying with it, 300-500 man-made meteoroids.

Once in position, the satellite will be able to overlook major cities across the world during night time with more satellite launches being planned for the future to expand coverage and improve flexibility.

The satellites will be outfitted with a discharge device developed by the company that will eject pellets 2 cm in size.

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“It’s like shooting a bullet from the satellite,” Abe says.


The First Meteor Shower


The company’s first ever show will feature a dozen artificial meteors across the sky. While the whole point is to mimic an actual meteor shower, there will one key difference, its speed.

“If you look up and see our shooting star, it won’t be mistaken for a natural one,” Yamamoto says.

A real meteor would be able to reach a top speed of 72 km/s but the company’s artificial meteor will travel at a much slower rate of 8 km/s. This is said to be intentional so that spectators can take their time to appreciate the show.

When the meteors are ejected from the satellite, they will travel one third of the way around the Earth before entering the atmosphere to reach its planned position. As they enter the planet’s atmosphere, the heat and friction will cause them to glow so bright that they can be seen from the surface.

Real shooting stars are mostly small rocks and dust particles no more than a few millimeters in diameter. When they pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, they completely dissolve due to the immense heat before reaching the surface. ALE says their artificial meteors will follow the same pattern.

During the show, the meteors will be visible to the ground in a 200 km radius so all of Tokyo will be able to enjoy the company’s firs ever show.


Commercial Applications


Another differentiating factor with the company’s artificial shooting stars is that they will come in a variety of colors. So far, they have created meteoroids in blue, green, and orange and they plan to offer more colors in the future.

ALE also sees this as a business opportunity, eyeing sports games, outdoor festivals, and other large scale events as their potential customers.

“Shooting stars and meteor showers are something that everyone enjoys,” says Yamamoto.

“Looking up at the sky, and seeing these meteors flying past will be something we’ve never seen before.”


Overcoming Hurdles

Meteorite composition viewed through a polarizing telescope
Meteorite composition viewed through a polarizing telescope

While the future – seems bright – for the company, they had multiple difficulties they had to overcome. One major hurdle was the lack of sufficient data on ‘meteors’. After entering the atmosphere, most meteors burn out before they even reach the surface so gathering data and studying their physical composition was next to impossible.

“A lot of astronomers have shared this idea of creating artificial meteors — I even presented an idea to the the professional community (before joining ALE) — but there are major budget problems and there (were) several big (scientific) barriers to success,” says Abe.

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To address the lack of concrete data, they had to experiment with different material compositions that would be the appropriate for their artificial meteors which they dubbed, source particles.

The second hurdle they had to overcome was creating the ‘shower’ itself by determining a meteoroid’s optimum orbit, trajectory, and entry angle into the atmosphere. Test are currently being don in an arc-heated wind tunnel at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

An electric arc — also called a voltaic arc — appears in some types of light bulbs, and sees the electric current leap between two electrodes, appearing like an arc.

But at atmospheric pressure, electric arcs heat matter at extremely high temperatures — to the tune of thousands of kelvins. With this highly concentrated energy, the wind tunnel essentially replicates the pressure that a particle experiences when it enters the atmosphere.

The team will also conduct a series of zero-gravity tests in the laboratory before launch.

Finally, the final and probably the most important factor of all was the meteor’s luminosity or how bright it appeared.

“Luminosity is affected by velocity, so if the meteor is slower, it will be fainter,” says Abe. “Our artificial meteor will be ejected from lower earth’s orbit from satellites, so the entry velocity is slower.”

They recently discovered a way to achieve luminosity that as they say, is 70 times brighter than a real shooting star.

“There’s no doubt that artificial shooting stars by ALE can clearly be seen anywhere, even in the city,” says Abe.


What It Means For The Scientific Community

While this project may seem like one of those – “it would be cool if we could do it” – moments, all the research and study that went into this has a deeper implication for the scientific community and the study of meteors as a field of science.

The team of about 20 astronomers and space engineers has published several scientific papers and given academic presentations based on their research. Once launched, the shooting stars could be used as a vehicle from which to observe the upper atmosphere.

The team is also delving into theories about the origin of life, as some hypotheses hold that human life originated from space — possibly starting with amino acids carried to earth by meteors.

“(The astronomy community) is interested in composition, density, and composition of natural meteors,” says Abe.

“They are coming from comets and asteroids so it’s hard to get there by spacecraft.

“This kind of exploration is very rare.”


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