A Russian Mission To Create A New Star Will Launch In Two Weeks

Artist's impression of the Mayak spacecraft. Boomstarter

Last year, we told you about Mayak, a Russian satellite that will become one of the brightest stars in the night sky. Now, it is just two weeks away from launching.

The small satellite is in the form of a cubesat, roughly the size of a loaf of bread. It will be launched on a Soyuz 2.1v vehicle on Friday, July 14, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, as a secondary payload. The project, led by Moscow State Mechanical Engineering University (MAMI), raised more than $30,000 on Russian crowdfunding website Boomstarter.

Once in orbit, about 600 kilometers (370 miles) high, the satellite is designed to unfurl a giant pyramid-shaped solar reflector. The goal is for this satellite to shine brighter than any other star in the night sky. To do this, its reflector made of Mylar will span 16 square meters (170 square feet) and is apparently 20 times thinner than human hair. The mission is also acting as a technology demonstration, to test how to brake satellites in orbit and de-orbit them.

Based on our previous calculations, we think it’s going to shine with a magnitude (a measure of brightness) of about -3.6. This would make it the fourth brightest object in the sky after the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. Other reports put it as bright as a magnitude of -10, which would make it brighter than Venus.

While it might be an interesting project, that’s not necessarily a good thing. A lot of astronomy programmes rely on seeing the whole night sky, and having an errant star drift across could pose problems.

“We fight so hard for dark skies in and around our planet,” Nick Howes, an astronomer and former deputy director of the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland, told IFLScience. “To see this being potentially ruined by some ridiculous crowdfunded nonsense makes my heart simply despair.”

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Alex Shaenko, the project leader, told IFLScience previously that it “will not be a problem,” adding that there “are a lot of spacecraft flying in the night sky, some even brighter than Mayak.” That’s true to an extent, but a lot of these can be easily tracked and corrected for.

For their part, the engineers behind this project hope that it will encourage people to get involved with space. It will fly over many different locations, so it could feasibly be seen by a lot of people. On their website, they note the objective of the project is the popularization of “astronautics and space research in Russia,” and increasing the “attractiveness of science and technology education among young people.”

It may well do that. But it might piss off a few astronomers in the process.

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