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Tokyo startup looks to launch world’s first artificial meteor shower

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The Leonid meteor seen streaking across the sky over Mount Fuji on Nov. 19, 2001, inspired Lena Okajima to create technology to produce man-made shooting stars.

Tokyo >> It was literally an out-of-this-world idea that seemed infeasible when it struck her nearly two decades ago: made-to-order shooting stars. But Lena Okajima’s audacious project to reproduce nature’s fireworks for mass entertainment is getting ready for takeoff.

“The concept dawned on me when I watched the Leonid meteor shower in 2001,” says the CEO of Tokyo-based startup ALE Co., who at the time was an undergraduate student of astronomy at the University of Tokyo.

“I knew back then that if I were to launch my own venture, it will be one that produces shooting stars on demand,” she says.

Now Okajima’s plan is on the cusp of fruition. Her company, which she founded in 2011, is preparing to light up the skies of Hiroshima with the world’s first artificial meteor shower in 2020.

ALE’s business model is conceptually simple but requires exhaustive precision and preparation.

Essentially, the company is planning to launch into space custom-made minisatellites equipped with devices that can pump out tiny metallic balls around 1 centimeter in diameter that burn brightly as they fall back through the Earth’s atmosphere.

One satellite can carry around 400 of these pellets — whose chemical composition is a closely guarded secret — and the company plans to dispatch five to 20 satellites per event. So far ALE has developed balls that can glow green, blue and orange at a level just slightly dimmer than Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

“Even a slight misstep could spell failure,” says Okajima, a 39-year-old mother of two who worked for investment banking firm Goldman Sachs after earning her PhD in astronomy.

“The position of the satellite, as well as the speed and angle with which the balls are ejected need to be extremely precise for us to deliver them to where we want,” she says.

To create a meteor shower over Japan, for example, the metallic balls need to be released over Australia. They will then travel 4,300 miles in 15 minutes before flaring up for several seconds due to plasma emissions at an altitude of 37 to 50 miles.

“This precision, as well as the materials we use to create the pellets, are our core technology,” she says.

The first satellite is scheduled to hitch a ride into space on a rocket being launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency by March 2019. The second is expected to follow that summer on a private-sector rocket.

If all goes as planned, ALE’s two satellites will be orbiting the Earth by February 2020, preparing for a colorful cosmic shower over the city of Hiroshima that spring.

Okajima says the satellites’ life-span is about two years, and when they expire, they may be used to create giant shooting stars. Like the pellets, the microsatellites are designed to burn up completely while entering the atmosphere, posing no risk to onlookers on the ground. There are plans to push other used satellites and space debris on a targeted orbit to create artificial meteors.

ALE’s technology is not only for entertainment: Okajima says it can be used to collect data on the upper atmosphere and explore the origins of natural meteoroids.

The service may eventually be available worldwide for festivals, concerts and other events calling for fireworks of an astronomical scale.

Tweaking the coordinates of the satellites and the trajectory of the pellets will, in theory, enable ALE to produce shooting stars anywhere on the globe. Okajima imagines an online reservation system may eventually be created, where interested parties can book available time and location slots for meteor showers.

ALE, which stands for Astro Live Experiences, says events will be visible for more than 100 miles. The planned Hiroshima event, for example, is expected to be visible 124 miles away in other prefectures of the Setouchi region. Okajima says ALE chose Hiroshima for its premiere due to its international name recognition and good weather, an important factor to ensure visibility.

So far, the company has raised more than $6 million from investors and sponsors, such as Japan Airlines and convenience store chain FamilyMart. The project is expected to cost nearly $18 million.

The price for a show has not been set yet, but Okajima says it may cost less than a large-scale firework show, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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