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Crowdfunded Russian Satellite Could Be World’s First Space Monument

ByConor GearinNOVA NextNOVA Next

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Russian scientists want to give the world a night light.

Engineers at Moscow State University of Mechanical Engineering and Russian space enthusiasts have passed their goal for a crowdfunding project to launch a pyramid-shaped satellite covered with over 170 square feet of mirrors. It would outshine every star at night by reflecting the Sun’s rays from its orbit.

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An illustration of the proposed Mayak satellite

Here’s Sean Gallagher, reporting for Ars Technica:

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 satellite would stay in a

sun-synchronous orbit , meaning that it passes over the North and South poles. This kind of orbit allows satellites to maintain basically the same angle between the Sun and Earth throughout their flight.

The project harkens back to the 1957 Russian satellite Sputnik 1 , the first artificial object to achieve Earth orbit. While Sputnik’s beeps could be heard on radio sets on the ground as it circled, Mayak’s light will be a monument of sorts to “remind the world who was first in space,” the project’s crowdfunding page reads. It will also symbolize the contributions of private individuals to space missions, the group said.

Though songbirds use star patterns to navigate, adding a bright object to the night sky probably won’t confuse them, said Richard Holland, a biologist at Bangor University in Northern Ireland. “Birds are not stupid, so they’re not easily fooled by a new star in the sky.” Rather, birds use the whole pattern of rotating constellations in the sky when migrating, explained Graham Martin, an ornithologist at the University of Birmingham.

Besides its contribution to national pride, the project’s backers hope that it will also have scientific uses. “Mayak won’t just be a symbol,” the project’s webpage reads .

The team hopes to test an experimental braking system on Mayak. The brakes would let scientists return the object to Earth without using rockets. This system could help solve the problem of space junk that litters near-Earth orbits by providing a way to send future satellites back to Earth when their usefulness has ended.

However, just preventing new objects from becoming space debris only slows the problem down, said Marshall Kaplan, an aerospace engineer who’s the Associate Director of the Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research at the University of Maryland.  He said we eventually have to figure out how to remove debris that’s already in orbit if we want to keep flying satellites in the debris zone.

“There are no good solutions right now, and there might not be any good solutions, because the problem is so massive,” Kaplan said.

As for other uses of the proposed Russian satellite, Kaplan was skeptical. Other than offering a good educational experience for the engineering students working on the project, “I don’t think there’s any practical application for the general public,” he said. In fact, it might get in the way of amateur astronomers trying to view particular stars.