In Tokyo, a small startup is preparing a dazzling spectacle of shooting stars to launch above western Japan in spring 2020. Makery visited ALE a few weeks before it launches its first satellite into orbit.
Tokyo, from our correspondent
At 9:50 a.m. on January 17, 2019, the Epsilon Rocket 4 will launch from the Uchinoura Space Center of JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) in Kagoshima, Japan. Once in space, the rocket will launch a small satellite built by the Japanese startup ALE (Astro Live Experiences). The microsatellite will descend to an altitude of about 400km, where it will stabilize in orbit, passing over Hiroshima once every 9 days. In summer 2019, a second microsatellite will be launched, synchronizing its orbit with the first.
Then in spring 2020, both microsats will be positioned above western Japan and release precisely engineered particles, which will travel at approximately 7000m/s before entering the atmosphere and fully burn at about 60-80km above the Earth. These particles will then burst into a spectacular choreography of brightly colored shooting stars over the Setouchi Inland Sea, visible to some 6 million people across an area spanning 200km from Iwakuni to Okayama… And that’s just the beginning.
ALE promotional video (2017):
The idea was born in 2001, under the natural Leonid meteor shower above Japan. Several astronomy students were marveling at the dazzling display of celestial bodies in the night sky. One of them, Lena Okajima, was struck with inspiration: What if we could create artificial shooting stars for everyone to enjoy?
At the time, space was still a daunting frontier, which required the involvement of big research and big money. But by the late 2000s, universities had begun to create microsatellites for more targeted scientific research, which were both energy-efficient and cost-effective. The democratized “new space” trend was taking off around the world, and Okajima seized this opportunity to realize her idea.
In September 2011, after conducting feasibility studies and armed with a Ph.D in astronomy from the University of Tokyo, Okajima finally founded her dream company to create artificial shooting stars on demand. Since then, the ALE team has grown to 20 core members, whose backgrounds and contacts cover the technological centers of Asia, Europe and the United States, in addition to technical advisors and specialized scientific collaborators from Tohoku University, Tokyo Metropolitan University, Kanagawa Institute of Technology and Nihon University.
Stargazing on the Moon, on Mars, in orbit
“ALE’s mission is to connect science to society, to make space part of our general culture,” says Okajima. More down-to-earth, it all begins with universal entertainment—artificial shooting stars that can be triggered in space on demand and widely seen from the ground. Just as the Japanese traditionally view cherry blossoms in spring, so will the world gaze at the stars.
“Entertainment is an important part of life on Earth,” says Adrien Lemal, ALE’s resident French R&D engineer specialized in aerodynamics and materials brightness. “We do everything to entertain ourselves: cinema, manga, cars, shows, people, parties, and so on. So far, space is not entertainment, it’s just a means to obtain data—for weather, phone, Internet, etc. As we will later live on the Moon and on Mars, we need to keep entertaining people.”
Indeed, life in outer space can be a dark and lonely experience. “For now we are developing shooting stars for entertainment and science on Earth, but we can adapt all our systems for other planets, other conditions, to keep people happy,” Lemal continues. “This is just the first trial of a much bigger vision to entertain people beyond our planet.”
Another part of ALE’s mission is firmly rooted in open science: “Our goal is to encourage and foster people to learn about sciences in order to make great entertainment and great technologies with a positive impact on society,” adds Lemal. Since he joined the company in February 2018, the engineer remains in close touch with educational institutions such as ISAE-Supaéro and Ecole CentraleSupelec in France, Stanford University, University of Minnesota and space agencies such as NASA in the United States, and ESA ESTEC in the Netherlands.
During the two years that ALE’s dedicated microsat will remain in orbit, it will also collect scientific research data about the atmosphere (such as temperature and density profiles) and how materials react to it (thermal, mechanical, spectral properties, etc). This data can be particularly useful for aerospace engineering of next-generation aircraft, meteorological studies of the upper atmosphere as our climate changes, as well as tracking the behavior and distribution of space debris.
Shooting stars on demand
ALE has been commercializing its artificial shooting star technology since 2015, in tandem with its dedicated microsat and mechatronic release system. Natural shooting stars are the result of tiny dust particles entering the Earth’s atmosphere and burning up prior to plasma emission. ALE’s artificial shooting star particles are made of various (confidential but entirely safe) materials, which are precisely engineered to burn at a predetermined luminosity, in a designated color (blue, green, orange, red…), for a specific duration (3-10 seconds). These materials can also be changed to adapt to other planets, for example, Mars’s carbon dioxide atmosphere, or no atmosphere on the Moon.
So far, ALE has tested about a hundred materials for a palette of ten colors, all in carefully controlled experiments and high-fidelity simulations inside its laboratory in Tokyo. Once the composition of a material has been thoroughly tested, measured and analyzed in the lab, ALE combines in-house expertise and collaboration with Japanese manufacturers to design the particle and make sure it is safe for both people and the environment—very bright, but easily destroyed.
The real-life show will be something like a fireworks display, but much more spectacular. “We fully control the trajectory of the particles through the accurate positioning of our satellites, as well as the time of their release by command from ground to satellite,” assures Lemal. “So we also fully control their safety, because we know exactly when each of our shooting stars will be brightest and when it will fully dissolve into the atmosphere.”
ALE emphasizes that its mission is just as much about entertainment as it is about science. “Our vision is to fuse science with people again, to make things both beautiful and useful,” Lemal reiterates. “Our satellite is very small, human-sized, but the technology is cutting-edge. Some of our technology will remain protected, some will be patented, but some systems can be easily taught to students using simple maths or physics. We want people to realize that they can make beautiful things with small systems, and that anyone can do it.”
More information on ALE (Astro Live Experiences)