The Age of Fake Shooting Stars Is Upon Us

A satellite-delivered meteor shower is scheduled to open the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo—an artificial star over Bethlehem might be next. 

Andres Kudacki / AP / The Atlantic

When the 2020 Summer Olympics begin in Tokyo, attendees might find themselves looking up into the night sky to see an unprecedented public spectacle. If an event production firm called ALE Co. has its way, an artificial meteor shower will begin, a spray of tiny manufactured objects falling from space and igniting in the Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry.

These artificial meteors will be dropped by satellite.

Mixed in amongst the television signals and invisible communications relays bouncing down from space will be minuscule particles, only a few millimeters in size, made from elements such as lithium, calcium, strontium, rubidium, and copper, each of which releases a different hue when burned. Think of it as a thousand Olympic torches, falling from an otherworldly height—in the process, revealing the global ubiquity of satellites.

Usually ignored and rarely contemplated, this ultra-high-altitude realm of orbiting spacecraft will be given a newly incandescent role, releasing storms of light and color for nearly 30 million people in the Tokyo region to see—before disappearing again into darkness, where they normally reside.

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Satellites are easy enough to overlook. They beam radio shows around the globe, to cars stalled in endless traffic jams; they send television series from one side of the Earth to the other, bringing NFL games and Game of Thrones alike to viewers huddled in homes and apartments. Satellites have simply become part of how things work now. They’ve been absorbed into the conceptual background of the world, little more than infrastructure, a celestial version of electrical lines cutting through a field or forest—and, it seems, entirely unromantic because of it.

Becoming aware of satellites, ironically, usually only occurs through their absence. When a signal goes down, a TV station is lost, or a phone can no longer pinpoint its geographic location, satellites become conspicuous precisely because they seem to have failed.

But satellites can also be actively pushed to the foreground—they can be forced into visibility, observed, tracked, and revealed. Even when it doesn’t involve the theatrics of artificial meteor showers exploding over Tokyo, giving satellites a public face nonetheless often entails of an air of magic, as if someone has pulled back the curtain to expose a secret night sky, these artificial stars shining in a now thoroughly unnatural firmament.

The phenomenon of satellite flares, for example, bears at least a superficial resemblance to the astral lightshow proposed for Tokyo. In terms of repeatability, timing, and potential public spectacle, satellite flares can be thought of as a less pyrotechnic variation on ALE Co.’s scheme.

The so-called “Iridium flare” is the best-known example of this. The Iridium satellites are a constellation of six telecommunications spacecraft orbiting the Earth at an altitude of roughly 500 miles, or twice as high as the International Space Station. There are many websites dedicated to tracking them, purely so that ground-based observers can watch the satellites catch the sun—that is, watch them flare—at specific, predictable places and times around the world. Check-in regularly, and you will no doubt see one for yourself.

These flares last mere few seconds as tiny, diamond-like sparks in the sky, but their appearance can be precisely anticipated. This clocklike reliability not only lends itself well to the prospect of coordinating Earth-bound events with satellite flares for dramatic effect; it also means we have regular opportunities to remind ourselves of satellites’ omnipresence and ubiquity.

Space-based infrastructure need not remain invisible, the Iridium constellation implies; we just have to know when to look for it.

ALE Co. refer to their proposed meteor shower as “The Future of Entertainment. In Space.” Their technology could “provide a shooting star in all parts of the world,” they claim, and for any purpose. Suspending disbelief for just a moment, should such a service actually become operational, the 2020 Olympics could augur something of a new era for the planet, one in which controlled astronomical events become available to high-paying customers on demand.

Like planet-spanning showerheads of light, such shows could augment a presidential inauguration, a state funeral, an international holiday, or even be enlisted for narrative purposes. Ten years from now, a Christmas celebration could involve a historical reenactment of the Star of Bethlehem, using a combination of Iridium flares and artificial shooting stars; famous meteors from myth and history could be recreated at appropriate times of year. Even the zodiac by which some among us guide their lives could be augmented by new signs and constellations, their fates weighed against a celestial choreography humans ourselves have co-designed—call it superstition in the time of the Anthropocene, following the lights of false stars.

As design writer Rain Noe sees it, however, writing for Core 77, ALE Co.’s proposal could someday have a use other than mere spectacle. If the firm were to redirect its R&D, Noe suggests, perhaps it could find a way to help clear the skies of space junk, turning debris’s ritual destruction into a global show. In Noe’s vision, ALE Co. could “collect floating space debris, infuse it with particular elements, and send it into the atmosphere to burn up on re-entry—while providing a spectacular light show sponsored by a spectacle-seeking corporation.”

“That,” Noe adds, “would be a win-win.”

Whatever the direction—if any—these hoped-for meteor showers take, the very fantasy of witnessing astronomical events such as these comes down to seeing a larger network that too often remains hidden, a ring of machines spiraling far above us—above the clouds—in the dark.