There may be a new star in the sky this Christmas. In early December, Russian scientists hope to unfurl a 65-foot-wide "umbrella" 250 miles up to reflect sunlight to earth and turn night into dawn.
The Space Regata Consortium, a group of 15 state-owned enterprises in Russia, has been developing the umbrella since 1989. "Northern Siberia needs artificial light, especially during polar nights," which last 20 hours or so, says Vladimir S. Syromyatnikov, the consortium's technical director. If the December test works, umbrellas parked in higher orbits could each provide a predawn level of illumination for a city. The savings in municipal lighting would probably pay for the umbrella in a few months. Ultimately, says Syromyatnikov, hundreds of solar reflectors might ring the earth, with some available for emergencies--for instance, to light the way for relief workers in the wake of earthquakes or other disasters.