Project Starshine

Schoolchildren help to launch a space satellite

The Starshine satellites are 1-metre diameter spheres covered by hundreds of mirrors, looking like a discoball orbiting the earth. They can be seen from the earth because the mirrors reflect sunlight. Thousands of children from different countries have been involved because they polished the mirrors on the satellites. The aim is to expose children to science at an early age.

The satellites orbit the earth at a height of 500km at a very fast speed. The tenuous atmosphere at this height produces friction, which slows down satellites, which then fall to earth. During a solar storm the sun shoots out blasts of highly energised particles and extreme ultraviolet radiation. These blasts are known as solar flares. Even though these flares start 150 million km away their effects are still felt on earth. In a solar storm the extreme ultraviolet radiation is absorbed by the upper atmosphere and it heats up and swells up. This pushes denser air up to greater heights than normal which increases drag on orbiting objects which descend more quickly.

This research will be used to find out what happens to the orbit of the Space Shuttle, Space Station Alpha or any other low earth orbit objects. This information will be correlated with that of the US Space Commands’s precision tracking equipment. This will then allow the orbit of satellites to be predicted into the future and so protecting the Shuttle and Alpha from orbiting space junk.

Prof. Gil Moore is a retired Aeronautics Professor who has been thinking about a space project involving schoolchildren for many years. He made plans for the Starshine project in Christmas 1996 with his wife and friends. His friend Winter Horton suggested the name Starshine from the song “Good morning, Starshine” from the musical “Hair”.

The first Starshine was launched on Space Shuttle Discovery in 1999 and orbited the earth for eight months. It was covered with hundreds of mirrors. Starshine 3 was launched on an Athena rocket from Alaska on 29th September 2001. It is bigger and heavier than Starshine 1 and 2 and contains a radio receiver and transmitter. Starshine 2 was launched on Space Shuttle Endeavor in 16th December 2001. It is similar to Starshine 1 but has a small gas thruster to make it spin.

Starshine 4 and 5 will be launched on Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2003 and hundreds of mirrors have to be prepared for these satellites. Schoolchildren around the world are being asked to take part. All participating schools will be sent a kit with three 2.5cm diameter aluminum mirrors and a polishing kit with instructions on a video or CD. The school will keep one of the mirrors as a momento, and two will be posted to the Starshine team to be used on the satellite.

Headmasters, teachers and schoolchildren interested in taking part are encouraged to contact the Starshine Malta co-ordinator Dr Gordon Caruana-Dingli. The Astronomical Society of Malta is co-operating with the project. There is more information on the Starshine Malta web-site at