Posted on June 4th, 2019

Reaching Orbit – Let’s Not

Meteor showers are cool. A few curmudgeony people may disagree. Ten years ago Dr. Lena Okajima saw an opportunity to capitalize on people’s fascination with meteor showers by founding Astro Live Experiences (ALE), a company endeavoring to launch satellites that drop particles into low earth orbit creating artificial meteor showers.

It’s the fireworks of space. Companies can purchase a meteor shower for their next big event, from concerts to the bored rich looking for something to make them feel alive again. The first demonstration of their product offering is planned for the city of Hiroshima in 2020 and will be visible to people in a 200 square kilometer (sq km) area. They also hope to release a meteor shower over the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

A decade after the company was founded, on January 18th, an Epsilon rocket lifted off the Japanese island of Kyushu carrying seven spacecraft. One of these satellites was the ALE-1, the first of its kind. The satellite contains 400 meteor particles about 1-centimeter in size. It will continue to orbit, slowing itself down by lowering its orbit from 500-km to 400-km. Once released, the particles will travel slower than a natural meteor shower, elongating the viewing experience. No word on the cost for these on-demand media showers, but it can’t be cheap.

Last month, I wrote about Pepsi partnering with a Russian company to create orbiting billboards in low-earth orbit, essentially using the night sky as an advertising canvas. It’s an appalling commercial application for satellites. While ALE is also capitalizing on a commercial application for small sats, they do so with a somewhat larger conscience. As with all small sats and space debris, the Kessler effect hangs over us as an eminent, yet largely-ignored issue that will someday take out low-earth orbiting satellites in a cascade effect.

Image of the Perseid meteor shower in 2018 (Credit: NASA/Bill Dunford).

ALE had the forethought to help develop the Membrane-Deployment De-Orbit Mechanism (DOM3) for its satellites. The DOM3 uses atmospheric drag to pull the satellite into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up instead of turning into space junk. They are also working on an Electrodynamic Tether (EDT) that uses the Earth’s magnetic field to pull debris into the atmosphere.

Its presence alone, dropped particles notwithstanding, still might find itself contributing to the Kessler effect instead of reducing it if they aren’t careful. The satellite has three safety checks. The first checks on the position of nearby satellites. The second is a redundant system to track the satellites position. Then the last system checks the pressurized gas that propels the particles. According to their website, the particles should burn up entirely before they reach 60-km above the Earth’s surface and avoid collisions with orbiting debris.

Everything in space leaves an impact on Earth. Rocket fuel is burned into our atmosphere along with all the other toxic materials on board satellites. Adding to this effect for the sake of entertainment is a sad business. Part of what makes meteor showers so beautiful is the rarity of the event. So to, is the intimate, late night star gazing in a secluded area, the held breath as you hope to catch a glimpse of deep space hurtling through our atmosphere. Meteor showers are beautiful because they are alien, not because they are manufactured by humans. If I want to revel at the accomplishment of man, I’ll watch a fireworks show.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163
katie@apollomapping.com

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