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March 1, 2016

Brightest star in the sky

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Russian crowdfunded reflector satellite aims to be “brightest star in the sky”

A group of engineers and space enthusiasts from Moscow University of Mechanical Engineering has hit the goal for a crowdfunding project that may change the night sky for a while. The team’s “Mayak” (Beacon) satellite project has raised enough money to launch what amounts to an orbital night-light into orbit—a solar-synchronized satellite that will deploy a 16-square-meter tetrahedron-shaped reflector. The reflector will bounce back the sun’s rays at the Earth as it orbits, making it brighter than any star in the night sky.
The team behind Mayak (which translates as “Beacon”) has raised 1.72 million rubles ($23,000) on the Russian crowdfunding site Boomstarter (which looks suspiciously like Kickstarter). According to the group’s page, the Russian space launch company Roscosmos has “Confirmed the possibility of (Mayak) being added to a launch on a Soyuz-2 rocket in the middle of 2016.” The scheduled launch is also carrying the Canopus-B-IR satellite, an earth observation satellite for monitoring forest fires.
Like most crowdfunding efforts, this one comes with a mobile app, which will give users the location of the satellite at any time. And it has stretch goals as well—the next goal is to fund construction of a model of Mayak for Moscow’s Museum of Cosmonautics. After that, the team hopes to construct an experimental atmospheric braking system that would help Mayak (and potentially other future satellites) re-enter the atmosphere and be recovered without the use of retro-rockets.

Russia has explored orbiting even bigger reflectors in the past. In 1993, a Progress cargo ship bound for the Mir space station carried aloft Znamya (“Banner”), a 65-foot diameter reflective disk of plastic coated with aluminum. While it was also intended to test the feasibility of solar sails, Znamya was an experiment in orbital lighting—using orbiting mirrors to light parts of the earth (or even entire cities) at night with reflected sunlight. The idea behind the program was that a collection of orbiting mirrors could be used to extend the length of daylight hours for harvests, major construction projects, and disaster response operations, a concept originally concocted by German space theorist Hermann Oberth (one of the fathers of modern rocketry) in the 1920s.

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