Russian Scientists Just Launched An "Artificial Star" That Could Threaten Astronomy

Artist's impression of Mayak. Boomstarter

Jonathan O`Callaghan 17 Jul 2017, 15:22

A Russian Soyuz rocket has successfully launched a controversial satellite into orbit, which will become one of our brightest stars in a few days – and may hamper astronomical observations.

The satellite is called Mayak, developed by Moscow State Mechanical Engineering University (MAMU) and funded with $30,000 through Russian crowdfunding website Boomstarter. We first learned about it back in early 2016, and on Friday, July 14, it launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan along with 72 other satellites.

"The satellite launch was good, and we are waiting for NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] to track it,” Alexander Panov from Mayak told IFLScience. “Roscosmos reported that everything was as planned, without any additional info.”

Mayak is a cubesat, a small satellite about the size of a loaf of bread. But once in position about 600 kilometers (370 miles) above Earth, it will unfurl a giant pyramid-shaped sail made of Mylar that’s designed to reflect the Sun. It will span 16 square meters (170 square feet) and is apparently 20 times thinner than human hair.

Klichnikova said they expected the satellite to unfurl in a few days, and they will be tracking it on the ground from Caucasus on the border of Europe and Asia next week.

The company says the goal of the mission is to inspire people to look up to space, as well as testing technology to de-orbit satellites. Using an app on their phone, backers of the project can track its location and find out when it’s flying overhead.

The satellite will remain in orbit for at least a month, although at such a high altitude, there’s a possibility it could stay there for many more months if it’s orbit does not properly degrade as planned.

By their calculations, the company says it will shine with a magnitude of -10, third only to the Sun and the Moon. Our calculations suggest it will be -3, making it the fourth brightest object in the night sky after Venus.

Either way, if the unfurling is successful, Mayak is sure to pose problems. The brightness of the satellite could hamper regular astronomers looking at the night sky. And it could pose a bigger problem for all-sky surveys, which monitor the entire sky.

An image of the launch. Denis Efremov/MTI
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