Every August, the Perseid meteor shower provides sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere a phenomenal show, weather permitting. But if it's overcast, you might be out of luck. Wouldn't it be nice to have a meteor shower on demand? You'd never miss out on wishing on a shooting star!
A Japanese company called ALE is trying to make that concept a reality. The company calls its idea the Sky Canvas project. And it involves creating an artificial meteor shower.
Here's how it would work: ALE would send a small satellite into Earth orbit, presumably partnering with a private space company like SpaceX. When the satellite is in the appropriate position at the right time, it releases "source particles," which light up as they lose speed and enter Earth's atmosphere. Voila! You have a meteor shower!
It's not as easy as it sounds. You can't just dump a bunch of stuff directly over your intended viewing area. The particles will travel about one-third of the way around the planet before entering the atmosphere. The company says that people within a 62-mile (100-kilometer) radius of the targeted viewing area would be able to see the display.
Then there's safety to consider. Space trash is already a problem. Even a small particle can pose a threat to satellites when orbiting Earth at incredible speeds. ALE claims that it has worked to develop a technology that will allow its satellite to fire off source particles only after the company determines there's no chance of collision. The satellites themselves will de-orbit, too — that means they'll enter Earth's atmosphere and become a big shooting star — within 25 years of launch.
To top it off, ALE plans to create displays of different colors. That means multicolor meteors! They can do this by using different base elements in their source particles. For example, potassium gives off a flame that's pinkish purple, while copper will create a green shooting star.
It will be an expensive endeavor, so don't expect artificial meteor showers at your local state fair. But for really big events, such as the 2020 Olympics, it would make a real statement and be viewed by people around the world.
The company also aspires to create pictures and words in the sky. ALE would achieve this by launching multiple satellites. If the company can pull it off, it's easy to imagine that the night sky could become a massive advertisement. But maybe if we all wish really hard on some shooting stars we can prevent the sky above us from becoming a billboard.