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The night skies might soon have company: Chinese scientists are planning to launch an artificial moon into orbit by 2020 to illuminate city streets after dark. Scientists are hoping to hang the man-made moon above the city of Chengdu, the capital of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, according to a report in Chinese state media. The imitation celestial body — essentially an illuminated satellite — will bear a reflective coating to cast sunlight back to Earth, where it will supplement streetlights at night. Scientists estimated that it could be eight times more luminous than the actual, original moon. It will also orbit much closer to Earth; about 500 km (310 miles) away, compared to the moon’s 380,000 km (236,000 miles). But the ambitious plan still wouldn’t “light up the entire night sky,” Wu Chunfeng, chief of the Tian Fu New Area Science Society, told China Daily. “Its expected brightness, in the eyes of humans, is around one-fifth of normal streetlights.” Wu estimated that new moons could save the city of Chengdu around 1.2 billion yuan ($173 million) in electricity costs annually, and could even assist first responders during blackouts and natural disasters. If the project proves successful, it could be joined by three more additions to the night sky in 2022, he said. But much more testing needs to be done, Wu said, to ensure the plan is viable and will not have a detrimental effect on the natural environment. “We will only conduct our tests in an uninhabited desert, so our light beams will not interfere with any people or Earth-based space observation equipment,” he told the Daily. China’s space goals are not unprecedented. In the 1990s, Russia experimented with using an orbital mirror to reflect sunlight on some of its sun-deprived northern cities, according to the New York Times. The project was abandoned in 1999 after the mirror failed to unfold and was incinerated in the atmosphere. In January, American firm Rocket Lab launched an artificial star into space, the Times reported. But scientists criticized the “Humanity Star,” as the reflective mini-satellite was dubbed, for contributing to artificial light pollution and cluttering in Earth’s orbit.
"A dusk-like glow" Regarding concerns about the Chinese artificial moon interfering with astronomical observations or disrupting animals that are active at night, Kang Weimin, the director of the Institute of Optics of the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, said that the light would amount to only a "dusk-like glow," PDO reported. However, research has shown that many animals are highly sensitive to the light and phases of the moon. For example, nocturnal eagle owls communicate with each other through the display of white throat feathers, and scientists have found this activity increases during the full moon, when moonlight is brightest. And in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, hundreds of coral species simultaneously release their eggs and sperm in an annual mass spawning event linked to the level of moonlight. The size and illumination technology of Chengdu's artificial moon are not yet available, so it remains unclear if the brightness of the proposed artificial satellite would indeed be intense enough to interfere with the routines of local wildlife. In addition, while the company is calling it a "satellite," which suggests that it will be launched into geostationary orbit — in which the orb circles the Earth above the equator — no details have been released about how the company plans to deploy the "artificial moon."