How a Russian Space Mirror Briefly Lit Up the Night

In 1993, the 65-foot-diameter satellite, called Znamya, briefly lit the Earth like a giant orbiting night light

The Znamya 2 mirror-solar sail, deployed. QSI/MIR

It may sound like a plan only a supervillain could imagine, but during the 1990s, a group of Russian scientists and engineers devised a gadget that redirected sunlight lost to space back to Earth. Acting like a giant mirror, the device was intended to lengthen daylight hours, provide solar energy for power, and possibly one day power spaceships. And believe it or not, for a brief moment it actually worked, reports Brian Merchant for  Motherboard.

The project to build Znamya or “Banner,” as it was called, began in the late 1980s to test technology that would increase the length of a day with the goal of boosting productivity in farms and cities in the then Soviet Union.

Though this may sound like a nightmarish dystopian fantasy, Znamya’s lead engineer, Vladimir Syromyatnikov, knew his stuff, Merchant writes. Syromyatnikov had a reputation for brilliant engineering when it came to space. He previously worked on the Vostok, the spacecraft that propelled Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961. Many of his designs for spacecraft docking mechanisms are still used in the shuttles that fly to the International Space Station.

"He was always thinking. If there was a problem, he always had a sketch pad,” engineer Bruce Bandt, who worked with Syromyatnikov on the Soyuz-Apollo program told Patricia Sullivan for the Washington Post in 2006. “We had our shares of failures and problems in the test [phase]... but it wouldn't be long, sometimes overnight, before there would be solutions."

Syromyatnikov might have made his name with docking mechanisms, but in the late 1980s his passion project was developing solar sails that could propel spacecrafts through the stars by riding the stars' radiation pressure like ship sails in the wind. But Soviet leaders at the time were obsessed with extending the work day to maximize productivity, so Syromyatnikov pitched these solar sails as a means to redirect sunlight back towards the Earth, Merchant writes.

Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, Syromyatnikov continued to work on the project, and in 1993 he got his chance to put Znamya to the test. Funded by a collection of Russian state-owned corporations, Syromyatnikov constructed a 65-foot-wide sheet of mylar that could be unfurled from a central mechanism and launched from the Mir space station, Warren E. Leary wrote for the New York Times at the time.

“During the tests, Russian engineers say the small reflector should cast light equivalent to three to five full moons over an area of Earth measuring about three miles in diameter,” Leary wrote. 

As odd as the idea may seem, the test was successful.

When the Znamya satellite was deployed the night of February 4, 1993, it directed a beam of light about two or three times as bright as the moon and two-and-a-half miles wide down to Earth’s night sky, passing across the Atlantic ocean, over Europe, and into Russia, Leary reported at the time. While observers on the ground only reported seeing a bright pulse as if from a star, astronauts in orbit said they could see and follow a faint light across the sky below. A few days later, the mirror burned up as it reentered the atmosphere.

Syromyatnikov spent years trying to replicate Znamya’s success, but to no avail. The project cost too much money, and a follow-up satellite got caught on one of Mir’s antennae, which ripped the delicate sail and the mission was scrapped. When Syromyatnikov failed to drum up more investors for the project, he went back to working on docking mechanisms until his death in 2006, Merchant writes.

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