A group of engineers and space enthusiasts from the Moscow University of Mechanical Engineering has reached the goal of a crowdfunding project that could change the night sky for a while. The team’s “Mayak” (Beacon) satellite project has raised enough money to launch into orbit what amounts to an orbital nightlight — a solar-synchronized satellite that will deploy a 16-square-meter tetrahedral reflector. The reflector bounces the sun’s rays back to Earth as it orbits the Earth, 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 Russian crowdfunding site Boomstarter (which looks suspiciously like Kickstarter). According to the group’s page, Russian aerospace company Roscosmos has “confirmed the possibility of (Mayak) being added to a launch on a Soyuz-2 rocket in mid-2016.” The planned launch also carries the Canopus-B-IR satellite, an Earth observation satellite for monitoring wildfires.
Like most crowdfunding efforts, it comes with a mobile app, which allows users to see the satellite’s location at any time. And it also has far-reaching goals – its next goal is to fund the construction of a model of Mayak for the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics. After that, the team hopes to build an experimental atmospheric braking system that would help Mayak (and possibly other future satellites) re-enter the atmosphere and be recovered without the use of retro rockets.
Russia has researched even larger reflectors in the past. In 1993, a Progress freighter bound for the Mir space station carried the Znamya (“Banner”), a 20-meter diameter reflective disc made of plastic covered in aluminum. While also intended to test the feasibility of solar sails, Znamya was an experiment in orbital lighting—using orbiting mirrors to illuminate 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 harvesting, major construction projects and disaster relief operations, a concept originally conceived by German space theorist Hermann Oberth (a of the founders of modern rocketry) in the 1920s.