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Friday, February 5, 1999 Published at 13:18 GMT


Znamya is going nowhere

The mirror fails to deploy

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Some saw the Znamya space mirror experiment as a forerunner of end of the world.

They envisaged that it would lead to swarms of huge space mirrors orbiting the Earth bringing light to dark arctic cities and causing great confusion to animals and plants.

Astronomers were also alarmed. They said that light pollution from these space mirrors would obscure their view of the Universe forever.

Had these two groups, and a few in the media, known more about the Russian space effort they would have realised that their fears were groundless.

It would have been fun trying to spot the brief flash that would have been Znamya - if it had worked.

Instead it failed to deploy and flapped uselessly as frustrated space controllers watched.

In truth, Znamya is a project that is going nowhere. There is not the slightest chance that the Earth will be girdled with space mirrors in the foreseeable future.

High cost

The project is a leftover from the days when the then Soviet space effort had great ambitions.

But, faced with the high cost of space, the Soviet leadership abandoned their great space adventure sometime around 1980.

Since then, there have been big projects such as the Mir space station and the farcical Buran space shuttle, but they have been characterised by lack of funding and lack of support from the top.

So it is with Znamya. There may be another test, a Znamya 3 mission - but after that it will stop.

Building a fleet of space mirrors that are large enough to be of any use is simply beyond the resources of the cash-starved Russians and everyone else as well.

So the astronomers and the ecologists who have criticised the Znamya mirror are wasting their time.

The technology may have other uses. So-called space sails could harness sunlight and propel spacecraft in-between the planets just as wind-powered sailing ships plied the seas in bygone years.

If Znamya-like technology has a future it is as the precursor to exciting solar sail technology that offers a cheaper method of interplanetary travel - not as a bright light in the sky.

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