Russians Make Us a Star

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AKTYUBINSK, Kazakstan: Why'd that star suddenly appear? Because the Russians have a self-esteem problem. Starting on Friday -- a Mir glitch delayed Thursday's planned deployment -- a Russian space mirror named Znamya (Russian for "banner") will deploy from the space station Mir, turn huge reflectors to the sun, and shine a series of 15-second bursts of light down on nine different cities in Eastern Europe, Germany, Canada, and -- for their old rivals in the West -- Devil's Lake, North Dakota. Don't expect an otherworldly limelight, but under ideal conditions, the mirror will, for those 15 seconds and from those cities, look like the brightest star in the sky.

What's the point? The Russians are cooking up a plan to shorten those interminable Siberian nights by using reflected sunlight from space. TIME science correspondent Jeffrey Kluger chalks it up bruised Moscow egos. "This seems more an exercise in showmanship than anything else -- just to prove they can do it." But if Kluger isn't tearing up his electric bill just yet. "This idea pops up every ten years or so, but it just isn't destined for reality," he says. "There's a whole world of people out there who like their night and day the way they are." For 15 seconds, though, the beleagured Russians gets to be the light of our lives.