Russian Satellite Could Soon Be the Brightest ‘Star’ in the Night Sky

It’s possible to spot many of the manmade objects orbiting Earth from the ground, but not usually with the unaided eye. That could change in the coming days, as a team of Russian engineers and students from the Moscow State Mechanical Engineering University (MAMI) deploy the Mayak satellite. The satellite itself is a standard cubesat around the size of a loaf of bread, but it’s going to deploy a solar reflector that could make it one of the brightest objects in the sky. This sounds cool, but it might annoy astronomers.

Mayak (the Russian word for beacon) successfully made it into orbit several days ago aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. Just a few years ago, such a project would have been out of reach for a small team like the one from MAMI. However, cubesats have offered a way to get very small payloads into orbit on the cheap. Well, somewhat cheap. The team raised about $ 30,000 to fund the launch of this 3U cubesat on Boomstarter, a Russian equivalent of Kickstarter.

Once the satellite is in position at an altitude of 370 miles (600 kilometers), it will unfurl a giant mylar reflector with a surface area of 170 square feet (16 square meters). The designers claim this pyramid-shaped contraption will have a brightness of magnitude -10. That would make it brighter than Venus, leaving just the sun and moon with higher brightness. Some sources dispute this claim, saying it will probably be closer to magnitude -3.6. This would drop Mayak down below Venus on the brightness scale.

mayak app

Backers of the crowdfunding project have access to an app that tracks the position of the satellite, making it easier to spot. Even at the lower brightness estimates, Mayak should be visible from the ground just by looking up at the right time. The team says this project is partially about inspiring people to get interested in space, and also to test an aerobraking technique that could one day be used to de-orbit satellites.

Some astronomers have expressed concern that the sudden appearance of a new super-bright object could interfere with their observations. The team notes that objects like the International Space Station are brighter than Mayak will be, which is true. However, Mayak’s appearance could still cause headaches, as astronomers performing large-scale surveys have to make new adjustments in their data.

We’ll know in a few days if the satellite’s reflector deployed correctly. Maybe you’ll be able to take a peek at it yourself.

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