In the 90s, a team of Russian scientists tried to use a giant space mirror to turn night into day. For a second, they succeeded.
Znamya in space. Image: QSI / MIR
Employers have always aimed to maximize worker productivity. Today they might exploit the connectivity of email, smartphones, and Slack to extend the reach of the modern workday, big reasons we're working more and sleeping less. In the 1990s, though, Russian scientists tried it the other way around. They took a different, more dramatic approach to lengthening the day—they launched massive machines into orbit to reflect sunlight down onto the dark side of the Earth.
It's true: Throughout the early 90s, a team of Russian astronomers and engineers were hellbent on literally turning night into day. By shining a giant mirror onto the earth from space, they figured they could bring sunlight to the depths of night, extending the workday, cutting back on lighting costs and allowing laborers to toil longer. If this sounds a bit like the plot of a Bond film, well, it's that too.
The difference is that for a second there, the scientists, led by Vladimir Sergeevich Syromyatnikov, one of the most important astronautical engineers in history, actually pulled it off.
The Big Cheese
A bright young engineer in the USSR, Vladimir Syromyatnikov graduated from a technical university in Moscow in the 1956. At the age of 23, he earned a position in Russia's elite space and rocket design program, then called the Special Design Bureau Number 1 of Research and Development Institute Number 88 (this was Soviet Russia, recall), and later known as Energia.
Syromyatnikov went to work under Sergey Korolev, the head designer of the ballistic missile that launched Sputnik—the world's first artificial satellite—into orbit in 1957. There, he helped design the world's first manned spaceship, the Vostok, that hurtled Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961.
The hardworking engineer quickly rose through the ranks of the Russian space program, due largely to his brilliance with docking systems. Today, he's probably best known for inventing the mechanism that allows two spacecraft to link up. He built the Androgynous Peripheral Attach System, which allowed the American and Soyuz spacecraft to connect in 1970. His designs are still used in the shuttles that dock at the International Space Station.
"We used to call him 'big cheese,' and he liked that term," Bruce Brandt, an American engineer on the Soyuz-Apollo program, told the Washington Post. "He was always thinking. If there was a problem, he always had a sketch pad. We had our shares of failures and problems in the test [phase]... but it wouldn't be long, sometimes overnight, before there would be solutions."
His system, to date, has never failed in space a single time in over 200 docking operations.
But by the late 1980s, what Syromyatnikov really wanted to do was to design a solar sail that could harness the power of the sun to propel a spacecraft through the galaxy—one that could also, say, reflect sunlight back to Earth during the dead of night.
His statesmen, however, saw a unique way to maximize labor efficiency. Throughout the Soviet era, Russian scientists were obsessed with finding ways to increase the productivity of farmlands and workers in Russia's northern regions, where days would grow very long in the summer and extremely short in the winter. In 1988, Syromyatnikov seized on the idea of daylight extension, apparently as a pitch to get backers to support his solar sails. He retooled the focus of his design to function as a space mirror, and founded the Space Regatta Consortium.
Reasoning that it could reduce energy costs for electric lighting, the company's slogan pitched its services as 'daylight all night long.'"
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the general objective remained in Russian scientific circles, driven on, perhaps, by institutional inertia.
"The initial impetus for the project was to provide illumination for industrial and natural resource exploitation in remote geographical areas with long polar nights in Siberia and western Russia, allowing outdoor work to proceed round the clock," Jonathan Crary, a professor of art and theory at Columbia University, writes in his book about the rise of the round-the-clock labor paradigm, 24/7. "But the company subsequently expanded its plans to include the possibility of supplying nighttime lighting for entire metropolitan areas. Reasoning that it could reduce energy costs for electric lighting, the company's slogan pitched its services as 'daylight all night long.'"
"Think what it will mean for the future of mankind," Syromyadnikov would later tell the Moscow Times. "No more electricity bills, no more long, dark winters. This is a serious breakthrough for technology."
He assembled a team that would build the satellite that would come to be known as the Znamya ("Banner"). It was, essentially, a 65-foot wide space mirror.
"In much the way a schoolchild playing with a hand mirror learns to reflect a spot of light from a bright window into the crannies of his room, some scientists believe they can put large, orbiting mirrors above Earth that could illuminate darkened areas below with spots of reflected sunlight that measure tens of miles across," The New York Times explained in a 1993 article on Znamya.
The satellite would be launched from Earth to the Mir space station, then from Mir into orbit. Once there, it would unfurl in eight sections, spanning 20 meters, that would deflect sunlight back to earth, illuminating a nightbound hemisphere. This would, theoretically, reduce the costs of lighting existing cities, as well as allowing longer workdays in darker regions.
The project's engineers tallied its other potential boons in a document later drafted to promote Znamya:
"-a system of artificial illumination may prove invaluable for the support of rescue operations during industrial and natural disasters
-the illumination might be helpful during law-enforcement and anti-terrorist campaigns;
-the light from space can also help during special construction projects and other industrial activities"
The plan was to first test a 65-foot mirror (Znamya 2), then a 82-foot version (Znamya 2.5), finalize the test phase with a 230-foot mirror (Znamya 3), and, eventually launch a permanent 656-foot space mirror installation that would be capable of fully turning early night in Russian cities into something close to full-blown day.
"Russians to Test Space Mirror As Giant Night Light for Earth," the aptly titled Times story announced. It continues: "If it can be done, proponents say, providing sunshine at night could save billions of dollars each year in electrical lighting costs, extend twilight hours during planting and harvesting seasons to aid farmers, allow more working hours on large construction projects and help in rescue and recovery operations after natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes." The only thing to be lost was some sleep.
"The scheme called for a chain of many satellites to be placed in sun-synchronized orbits at an altitude of 1700 kilometers, each one equipped with fold-out parabolic reflectors of paper-thin material," Crary writes. "Once fully extended to 200 meters in diameter, each mirror satellite would have the capacity to illuminate a ten-square-mile area on earth with a brightness nearly 100 times greater than moonlight."
Building Znamya was a slapdash affair; the collapse of the Soviet Union had left the nation's science institutions under-funded, and many engineers and technicians found themselves volunteering their time to support the cause. The satellite itself was patched together from donated equipment. The financial support that did arrive came from a patchwork consortium of remaining state-owned space companies and research groups, NPO Energia among them.
After years of development, in 1992, Syromyatnikov and his team launched the 88-pound Znamya-2 into space aboard a vessel called Progress M15, bound for the Mir space station as a secondary payload.
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"This should be a marvelous technical demonstration," James E. Oberg an ex-NASA expert on Russian space programs said at the time. "It's an idea they've talked about for a long time, and now they will have a chance to see if it works."
Znamya sat idle for months. "The reflector was to have been deployed in December, but Russian space authorities delayed it," the Times reported in a follow-up story. "Plans now call for the Mir astronauts to fit the drum containing Banner into the docking port of the Progress before the unmanned supply ship leaves the station on Feb. 4 or 5. When the Progress is 500 feet from Mir, Banner is to be deployed by an electric motor that spins its drum and unfolds the eight-segment reflector disk like a Japanese fan. The mirror will orbit at an altitude of about 225 miles, and from Earth will look like a bright star."
And that bright star would shine down on Earth with the light of a full moon—or more. "The experiment will test the feasibility of illuminating points on Earth with light equivalent to that of several full moons." Think about that for a second: Several full moons. The night sky can, of course, be bright indeed, like a grey twilight, with a single full moon. Several full moons would surely kill the need for a flashlight.
As planned, on February 4, Znamya left Mir. When it found its orbit a safe distance away, the mirror successfully deployed. And, sure enough, it sent a five kilometer-wide beam of light back down to Earth. The beam swept through Europe, moving from the south of France to western Russia at a reported speed of eight kilometers per second. "Several" turned out to be an overstatement—its luminosity was equivalent to a single full moon's. Unfortunately, excessive cloud cover prevented the effect from being seen much on land; as the BBC reported, some Europeans reported noticing a flash of light as it glanced by, but that was about it.
Still, the theory had proved correct, and the design was sound. Znamya was de-orbited after a few hours and burned up in the atmosphere above Canada upon reentry.
"The reflector was a big success because it proved the concept was right," Nikolai N. Sevastyanov, a ranking project engineer on Znamya told the Times. "Now we must seek support to build one of bigger size."
Znamya 2 earned the team accolades and enough resources to pursue another go. It also net them some glowing press attention. "Russian Space Scientists Seek Eternal Light," was the headline of a July 1998 Moscow Times story, which opened as follows: "Deep in the bowels of the Russian space industry, visionary scientists have a plan to put an end to the long dark of winter… It is all so simple. Using a chain of huge mirrors suspended above Earth and angled to catch the sun's rays, they would save billions in heating and lighting bills."
After refining the designs and widening the scope—Znamya 2.5 would be 82 feet wide, and able to control and focus its light beam—Syromyatnikov and his team were eying another launch date. A cargo run to Mir was coming up in November, and, as the Moscow Times asked, "Why not just attach a giant reflective membrane to the rocket, set it loose and then bring hours of extra daylight to Russia's northern cities?"
Anticipation was growing; the boldness of the project had made it closely watched in scientific circles, and in the science-interested worldwide. And the plans were getting bolder. Znamya 3 was already beginning construction.
"We are pioneers in the field," Vladimir Syromyadnikov, now director of the Russian Space Regatta Consortium, told the Times. "If the experiment goes according to plan, we propose to send dozens more craft into space in the future on a permanent basis."
The project was assuming a grand scale, and not to everyone's liking.
"Opposition to the project arose immediately and from many directions," according to Jonathan Crary. "Astronomers expressed dismay because of the consequences for most earth-based space observation. Scientists and environmentalists declared it would have detrimental physiological consequences for both animals and humans, in that the absence of regular alternations between night and day would disrupt various metabolic patterns, including sleep. There were also protests from cultural and humanitarian groups, who argued that the night sky is a commons to which all of humanity is entitled to have access, and that the ability to experience the darkness of night and observe observe the stars is a basic human right that no corporation can nullify."
The opposition was well known to the scientists. "Russian space officials have been receiving complaints from astronomers and environmentalists that Znamya will pollute the night sky with unwanted light," the BBC reported in 1999.
The complaints weren't really about Znamya 2.5, specifically; they were about the forthcoming set of permanent space mirrors that Syromynadnikov was aiming to build. The permanent transformation of small parts of night into day.
"If it works, they'll be able to light up five or six Russian cities," the space expert Leo Enright said.
Suddenly, lighting up entire cities—even entire regions—usually darkened by night had become a palpably valid prospect. News outlets like the BBC even published guides of where the satellite's reflection would be visible, so the lucky few in position could watch a flash of light puncture the day.
So the world was watching on February 5, 1999, when the second, larger Znamya was finally thrust out of Mir.
As it was deployed, however, one of the mirrors caught on Mir's antennae, and ripped. Mission control tried to free the snagged space mirror, but it was too late. The thrashed sequel to Znamya was reluctantly de-orbited and burned up a failure.
Syromyatnikov tried to salvage the misfire, and pressed on with plans to build Znamya 3. He is listed as the sole contact person on a website built for the project at the end of 1999, and which still persists today—with his personal email and phone number attached.
"Looking forward to the space reflector experiment a lot of people all over the world and the participants interested in technical progress and investigation of the universe for peaceful goals were greatly sorry about failure to carry out the experiment completely," he writes, noting that his team received letters of support from nations around the globe. "After completing the experiment we were requested to continue the project, not to be disappointed, not lose our hearts. The way into unexploredness is a challenge."
The man who was diligently seeking to physically extend the workday with a giant space mirror wished that he himself never had to sleep.
That challenge requires substantial funding, however. Near the end of the document is an impassioned call for investors: "Actually we are considering the possibilities to repeat the Znamya-2.5 experiment, and as well as prepare and carry out the Znamya-3 experiment with the 70-meter reflector within the framework of the scheduled experimental program," he says.
"But only enthusiasm is not enough. The funding of the Znamya-2.5 experiment was extremely tight... For lack of government finances to support scientific researches we hope to find home and foreign sponsors. This is one of the way the development process of solar sail spacecraft, space illumination system and as well as other high technologies could be speeded up." (Even here, at the end he can't help but plug the solar sails that birthed the ill-fated enterprise.)
It's impossible to say how much the Znamya actually ended up costing in total—the Times reported that the Znamya 2 likely cost $10 million for the hardware alone, discounting launch costs—but Syromyatnikov was asking for over $100 million for the larger Znamya 3. He projected that ultimately, the permanent series of daylight-regulating reflectors that the Znamya experiments were leading up to would cost over $340 million to build, launch and operate. He claimed nonetheless that the perma-Znamya would be profitable in just two to three years, due to reduced lighting costs in big cities and the disaster response services it would provide.
The investors never came. After the failure of Znamy 2.5, they lost interest in the project, Znamya 3 was aborted, and Syromyatnikov was relegated to designing space mirrors only conceptually. He was forced to give up his dream of launching solar sailing ships. The quest to turn day into night from space was over, and night had won.
Hard Day's Night
Syromyatnikov went back to work on docking systems, which he would carry out until his death in 2006.
Just before he died, in 2006, he gave an interview to IEEE Spectrum, in which he recounted working nonstop, well into his 70s, often on docking mechanisms for the Soyuz rockets.
"I start my work early in the morning, usually at 5 o'clock, sometimes 4 o'clock," he said. "It's very early to bed and very early to rise. Every morning I do my physical exercises for 20 minutes to a half hour—and I work all weekends." The man who was diligently seeking to physically extend the workday with a giant space mirror wished that he himself never had to sleep.
One of Syromyatnikov's favorite slogans is, he tells IEEE, "The best rest is to work until lunchtime. So then you feel the day was not lost—and in the hours that are left you can do different activities, less critical tasks."
We are again thinking of orbital, sun-reflecting satellites. This time, the aim is primarily to beam a huge amount of solar power down to earth. The likes of US Naval Research Lab have been studying the prospect intently, and Japan's Aerospace Agency plans on launching an orbital solar power plant within the decade. The US has one that could be ready around then, too. John Mankins, the ex-NASA brain behind the US's SPS-ALPHA, argues that a "single solar power satellite would deliver power to on the order of a third of humanity." And as Syromyatnikov and his crew proved, giant space reflectors are far from the charter of science fiction alone.
The fascinating thing, in retrospect, is that Syromyatnikov himself never seemed to stop working. He seemed to actively disparage sleeping—and the night. He was always working. Even into his 70s, he adhered to a strict work regimen, toiling on docking systems for the Soyuz rockets.
"I understand how to design," he told IEEE. "You should feel, maybe by intuition, what lies ahead in the process, what should be done, not just design alone, not just the original sketches, but the whole thing."
It may be impossible for most of us to imagine the whole vision of Znamya—a world orbited by machines that regulate daylight—but we can understand the concept. It's one that's pressing up, sometimes uncomfortably in an increasingly sleepless world.
"[T]his ultimately unworkable enterprise is one particular instance of a contemporary imaginary in which a state of permanent illumination is inseparable from the non-stop operation of global exchange and circulation," Crary writes. "In its entrepreneurial excess, the project is a hyperbolic expression of an institutional intolerance of whatever obscures or prevents an instrumentalized and unending condition of visibility."
It's a world where, like today, we sleep less, cede our days to distant technologies, with more lunae crowding our vision. Imagine instead of blinking screens on the bedside, they're moonbright satellites.
Syromyatnikov's Znamya can be read both as a pathbreaking and unduly forgotten experiment, as well as a cautionary tale of human hubris, of the perils of pushing the workday too far. We may try to use technology to bend night into day, but the laws of nature have a way of bending it back.