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Brightest 'Star' in the Sky May Soon Be This Russian Satellite

If all goes to plan, the shiny new probe will help test methods for cleaning up space junk orbiting Earth.

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The rocket carrying the Mayak satellite.

Soon, there may be a new human-made “star” gliding across the heavens that will be brighter than both the International Space Station and the planet Venus.

Mayak, the Russian word for “beacon,” is a pyramid-shaped satellite that is the brainchild of a group of students at the Moscow State University of Mechanical Engineering (MSUME), who successfully crowdfunded the money to build and launch the probe.

Their 3U CubeSat is part of a flotilla of 73 satellites hitching a ride aboard a Soyuz rocket scheduled to launch on June 14 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Once in orbit some 373 miles above Earth, the bread loaf-size satellite will attempt to deploy four triangular reflectors neatly folded inside a canister. Once unfurled, the resulting sail will extend about 170 square feet across.

If the satellite manages to successfully inflate its metallic reflectors to full size, it has the potential to become the brightest human-made object in orbit. Some reports have even speculated that it could become the third brightest object in the entire sky, outshined by only the moon and the sun.

The mission team’s hope is to test new aero-braking techniques that could one day be used to safely and cheaply de-orbit space junk. But they also want to help demonstrate that a team of motivated everyday people, not just governments and big companies, have the ability to launch a real satellite.

As with hundreds of other orbiting objects, sunlight will reflect off Mayak’s shiny surface, making it appear from the ground as a bright object gliding for a few minutes across the fixed backdrop of stars.

The mission team has developed an app (in Russian only for now) so that the public can locate and track Mayak in the skies above. If it does successfully reach orbit, other online satellite tracking services will likely include it in their databases of Earth-orbiting spacecraft.

To some sky-watchers, the prospect of a new uber-bright satellite zipping across the starry skies has raised concerns, including the worry that this project signifies the further loss of pristine dark skies.

Still, if the Russian students pull off this project, even people under bright city skies will be able to look up and take notice of an eye-catching cosmic beacon.

Clear skies!

Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, is the author of Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe and host of NG Live! Mankind to Mars presentations. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.