Artificial meteor showers could make a fearsome problem in space much worse

A hordeofnewsoutlets reported that Japanese company ALE plans to open the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with an artificial meteor shower, but the startup told Tech Insider that’s a bit premature.

“Our shooting stars are intended for large-scale events and we would like to aim for the Olympics,” spokesperson Rie Yamamoto wrote in an email, noting that ALE is not bidding on any kind of display at the games.

Still, what’s not to like about the idea of an on-demand, artificial meteor shower in the colours you choose?

Manufacturing such a celestial event has a long way to go before it’s a reality, and would be a sight to behold, but at least one space researcher is worried it could add to the growing cloud of space debris orbiting the Earth.

Each year, dozens of satellites and spacecraft are launched into orbit around the planet. Some fail when they get there, or eventually stop working, leaving them afloat in the “graveyard” of space tens to hundreds of miles above the Earth.

Space debrisESAA visualisation of the space debris orbiting the Earth.

NASA currently tracks over 500,000 objects larger than a marble — 20,000 of which are bigger than a softball. Each one has the potential to catastrophically damage the International Space Station (ISS), so crew members take cover anytime they go by a particularly large hunk of space junk.

Some apocalyptic sci-fi minds even say that if we continued at this launch pace without cleaning up the space debris, we would eventually create a barrier of junk so thick that we wouldn’t be able to leave the Earth. (WALL-E, anyone?)

That’s a little far-fetched, of course, but it illustrates how dire the growing space debris problem has become.

NASA, the European Space Agency, and other organisations are coming up with ways to clean up the space environment, but they haven’t settled on a winning, feasible idea yet.

This is why aerospace engineer and space debris expert Hugh Lewis, from the University of Southampton, told Tech Insider that he thinks launching satellites to create artificial meteor showers is unwise.

“It’s purely an aesthetic kind of mission,” he said. “The issue I have with it is that in order to gain that aesthetic you’re temporarily polluting the environment, and that’s something we’re working very hard not to do.”

The company’s plan is to launch a satellite about 320 miles up that would release hundreds of pellets, which would ignite and become shooting stars as they re-entered the atmosphere around 40 miles up.

Astronauts on ISSNASA/WikiMedia CommonsThe International Space Station orbits the Earth about 240 miles up.

ALE says it has developed software to determine the likelihood of colliding with other objects in space so its satellites and artificial meteors could hopefully avoid them.

“We [would] ensure that our pellets do not hit the International Space Station or other satellites based on the ISS data from the Joint Space Operations Center,” Yamamoto told Tech Insider in the email. “Also, when we discharge our pellets from the satellite, we’ll provide our data to [Joint Space Operations Center] as well so that they can confirm that it won’t hit satellites or the ISS.”

Lewis said he’s glad ALE is considering how they will deal with — and hopefully not contribute to — space debris, but he still questions whether the company should attempt an artificial meteor shower at all.

“It could work, but the challenge is to avoid the existing satellites that are there and all the debris as well,” Lewis said. “I think it’s a bad idea, but it’s really good that they acknowledge that there is an issue with space debris. It’s important to emphasise that. Ten years ago, people probably wouldn’t have been thinking on those lines.”

NOW WATCH: Here’s how the Space Station avoids hitting the thousands of pieces of junk in space

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