Russian Satellite Could Become The "Brightest Star" In Our Night Sky

Artist's impression of the Mayak spacecraft. Boomstarter

A team of Russian scientists is planning to launch a unique satellite into orbit, with the goal of making it the brightest star in our skies (aside from the Sun, of course) with the use of a giant reflective sheet of material. But there are some possible negative consequences if this ever gets off the ground, notably for amateur and professional astronomers alike.

The team of engineers behind this project, from Moscow State Mechanical Engineering University (MAMI), is running a crowdfunding campaign on the platform Boomstarter. The spacecraft is known as “Mayak,” or “Beacon” in English, and they have raised more than 1.7 million rubles ($22,000.) Having met their funding goal, they are now aiming for a launch in summer this year on a Soyuz-2 rocket with the assistance of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

The small spacecraft, roughly the size of a loaf of bread, will unfurl a giant pyramid-shaped solar reflector in orbit, with the aim of shining brighter than any other star. The reflector, 16 square meters (170 square feet) in size, is supposedly 20 times thinner than human hair, made of a thin polymer film. This spacecraft doesn't have any other scientific purpose, although the team notes that a similar structure could be used to remove defunct satellites from orbit.

"We want to show that space exploration is something exciting and interesting, but most importantly that today it is accessible to everybody who is interested," project leader Alexander Shaenko said, reported Sputnik News.

The team is planning to place the spacecraft in a Sun-synchronous orbit 600 kilometers (370 miles) above the ground. This means it will always be in sunlight, and thus will always be shining in the night sky at different locations as Earth rotates. At this height, the spacecraft will also be able to avoid large effects from atmospheric drag, so it could feasibly orbit for weeks, months, or even years.

Whether such a proposal can actually work remains to be seen. But if it does, it runs the risk of a backlash from scientific and environmental groups, depending on how bright it is. Some, like Russia Today, have suggested it may shine as bright as the Moon, although that is questionable. We ran some calculations, and came out with a magnitude of -3.6, which would be the fourth brightest object in the sky after the Sun, the Moon, and Venus.

The brightest star at the moment is Sirius, but Mayak has the potential to be brighter. T. Jittasaiyapan/Shutterstock

Nonetheless, if it is excessively bright, it could cause havoc for astronomers who rely on darkness to observe the universe. "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.”

Gemma Lavender, astronomer and editor for All About Space magazine, was less sure about the impact. “It's unlikely to cause any significant problems for astronomers – although, of course, if it happens to move in front of, say, a faint galaxy when astronomers are trying to observe it, then it'll cause some type of interference,” she said. “The sky is massive though, so the chances of this happening are quite small.”

The proposal isn’t wholly dissimilar to the Russian proposal to build a giant space mirror back in the 1990s to turn night into day in certain locations. Back then, that proposal wasn’t exactly met favorably. We’ll have to wait and see if Mayak fares better in the public eye.

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