The night sky may soon be lit up by a completely man-made “star.” So bright, in fact, the makers are hoping it will be brighter than the moon.
A team of Russian scientists are planning to launch the unique satellite into orbit, and then deploy a giant reflective sheet of material. The launch is planned for as early as July this year, on a Soyuz-2 rocket with the assistance of Roscosmos.
Project leader Alexander Shaenko, head of the Contemporary Cosmonautics program at Moscow State Mechanical Engineering University, told Sputnik News:
“We are sending a spacecraft into orbit that will be the brightest star in the sky, visible from any point on our planet.”
The spacecraft, known as “Mayak” (“Beacon” in English), was designed by young Russian engineers from the Moscow State Mechanical Engineering University (MAMI). The engineers raised more than 1.7 million rubles (US $22,000) in a crowd-funding campaign on the platform Boom-starter.
What’s the point?
Although some news outlets have stated: “The satellite itself won’t actually be doing any observations or scientific work,” it does have a purpose.
The main goal behind the project is to inspire and to make space science more popular with young people. After the launch, you will be able to track the satellite by using an app that will indicate where you can find the satellite (I would have thought if it was so bright you would not need an app).
“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.”
The system comprises of a small spacecraft roughly the size of a loaf of bread, and a giant pyramid-shaped solar reflector. Once launched it will be orbiting Earth in a sun-synchronous orbit 370 miles (600 kilometers) above the ground.
At this altitude “Mayak” would be able to avoid large effects from atmospheric drag, making it feasible for it to orbit for weeks, months, or even years. The reflector itself will stretch to 170 square feet (16 square meters) once deployed, and is 20 times thinner than human hair, being made from a thin polymer film.
The satellite, however, was not designed to stay up in the sky forever. The engineers are hoping to test an aerodynamic braking system that allows the satellite to slow down, and ultimately re-enter the atmosphere without having to use any fuel.
If they are successful, the system could be expanded to more function-oriented satellites. This could become the answer to clearing the space junk from Earth’s orbit.
The project has already attracted a backlash from scientific and environmental groups who are concerned about the light pollution it may cause.
The spacecraft has the potential be so bright that it may even make space observations more difficult. The additional light may also have other unforeseen ecological effects as well.
Nick Howes, former deputy director of the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland, told IFLScience:
“We fight so hard for dark skies in and around our planet. To see this being potentially ruined by some ridiculous crowdfunded nonsense makes my heart simply despair.”
Russia Today (RT) even suggested that it could be as bright as the moon, however after doing some numbers, that is questionable. It would be more likely the third brightest object in the night sky after the moon and Venus.
Gemma Lavender, astronomer and editor for All About Space magazine seems to agree, telling IFLScience:
“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. The sky is massive though, so the chances of this happening are quite small.”
The message may just get lost if the satellite causes problems for those who are actually exploring space. However, “Mayak” is only temporary, but it is still unclear exactly how long it will remain in stable orbit.
But if it becomes a big hit, then it will most likely lead to more schemes. It will be a case of see what happens, and hope it works out well for everyone.