SPACE

France’s ring of light

PETER LEWIS January 5 1987
SPACE

France’s ring of light

PETER LEWIS January 5 1987

France’s ring of light

SPACE

When Gustave Eiffel built his famous tower for the 1889 Paris Exhibition, many of his countrymen called the 984-foot-tall iron edifice a monstrosity and waited for it to topple over with the first strong wind. But now French scientists are planning an equally controversial project to mark the tower’s 100th anniversary. In 1989 a team of four French astrophysicists plans to launch what it calls a “ring of light” into space to circle the Earth in tribute to the tower. To achieve that effect, a half-ton package of 100 powerful reflectors, each linked by 787 feet of plastic tubing, is expected to be carried into space aboard a French observation satellite, launched along with an Ariane rocket of the European Space Agency (ESA). Once in orbit, the package of reflectors and tubing will be jettisoned from the rocket, forming a giant ring. Reflecting the sun’s light, the ring will be visible from any single point in Europe and North America for 10 minutes out of each 90-minute orbit, appearing slightly larger than the moon to an unassisted viewer.

The ring of light was selected in late November from among 99 ideas submitted by scientists throughout Europe in response to a competition set jointly by the Eiffel Tower operating authority and the ESA. Said Grazina Chesniak, an official with the Eiffel Tower authority, which is financing the $2.2-million plan: “We asked ourselves what Eiffel himself would do today if he were asked to symbolize present-day technology: no doubt it would be a feat in space.” For his part, 43-year-old scientist Jean-Pierre Pommereau, who developed the idea and is leading the project, said that the ring will remain in orbit 500 miles above the Earth for two years before breaking up. Pommereau said the only serious technical difficulty will be to ensure that the ring unfurls properly when it is released.

The rocket carrying the ring is scheduled to lift off in early 1989. But some experts said that the venture could interfere with scientific research. Declared Belgian astrophysicist Christian Muller, who himself took part in the Eiffel competition: “Astronomers fear that the luminosity and size of Pommereau’s ring could throw space photography out of kilter by masking smaller objects behind it.”

But the overriding concern of Muller and other scientists is that the ring could open the way to a new form of space pollution. While the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty limits the use of space to governments and state-approved private groups, it does not limit the material that can be put into orbit. Said Muller: “Carried to an extreme, it could mean that on the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution, the world will look up to find a red star in the sky.”

—PETER LEWIS in Brussels