A Soyuz-2.1a rocket is set to launch into orbit a Russian satellite so bright it may appear like a brilliant star in the night sky. The Mayak, or "Beacon," satellite will be launched as a secondary payload from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 14.
Crowdfunded Space Project
The project was backed by donations and over $30,000 in funding raised from crowdfunding site Boomstarter, Russia's equivalent of Kickstarter. The satellite, which is about the size of a loaf of bread, was designed by students from Moscow Polytechnic.
Once it gets into orbit, the satellite will unfurl the giant pyramid-shaped solar reflector, which would make the satellite one of the brightest artificial objects in the sky, brighter than the International Space Station (ISS) and planet Venus.
Mayak Mission Goals
The project has three primary goals. One is to prove that crowdfunding can pay for space research missions, which would show that space exploration is no longer confined to governments and wealthy groups and individuals.
The second is for the satellite to become the brightest object in the night sky. It is designed to unfurl and use its reflectors to reflect the rays of the sun back to Earth.
The third is to build an aerodynamic braking system for satellites that will make it possible to bring them back down to Earth and mitigate hazards in space. CubeSats, in particular, are becoming a concern because they are not maneuverable and thus pose collision risk to other orbiting objects in space.
Not Good For Astronomy Studies That Require Dark Skies
The idea of placing a very bright object in the sky, though, is frowned upon by some astronomers who rely on a dark night sky to conduct their research.
"We fight so hard for dark skies in and around our planet," said Nick Howes of the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland, UK. "To see this being potentially ruined by some ridiculous crowdfunded nonsense makes my heart simply despair."
Russia And Reflectors In Orbit
It is not the first time that Russians explored orbiting reflectors. In 1993, Russia launched Znamya, a 65-foot-diameter satellite that acted like a giant mirror reflecting the sunlight with the goal of testing technology that can lengthen daylight, provide solar power, and power spaceships.
Znamya was designed to direct a beam of light about three times as bright as the moon and more than 2 miles wide down to our planet's night sky.
"During the tests, Russian engineers say the small reflector should cast light equivalent to three to five full moons over an area of Earth measuring about three miles in diameter," The New York Times reported before the launch of the device.
The device worked and lit up the sky momentarily once it was deployed. Ground-based observers said the object appeared like a star, but astronauts in orbit said they could see and track the faint light. The device burned up a few days after it was deployed as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.