Russian Crowdfunded Satellite May Soon Become Brightest “Star” in the Sky

Artist’s view of the proposed Mayak (Beacon) satellite fully unfurled and orbiting Earth. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

We may soon look up and see a satellite brighter than the space station and even Venus gliding across the night sky if a Russian crowdfunding effort succeeds. An enthusiastic team of students from Moscow University of Mechanical Engineering are using Boomstarter, the Russian equivalent of Kickstarter, to raise the money needed to build and launch a pyramid-shaped satellite made of highly reflective material they’re calling Mayak, Russian for “Beacon”.


Young engineers at Moscow University explain the Mayak Project

To date they’ve collected more than $23,000 or 1.7 million rubles. Judging from the video, the team has built the canister that would hold the satellite (folded up inside) and performed a high-altitude test using a balloon. If funding is secured, Beacon is scheduled to launch on a Soyuz-2 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the second quarter of this year.

Illustration of the “Beacon” unfurling from its canister when it reaches orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Illustration of the “Beacon” inflating from its canister after reaching orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once in orbit, Beacon will inflate into a pyramid with a surface area of 172 square feet (16 square meters). Made of reflective metallized film 20 times thinner than a human hair, the satellite is expected to become the brightest man-made object in orbit ever. That title is currently held by the International Space Station which can shine as brightly as magnitude -3 or about three times fainter than Venus. The brightest satellites, the Iridiums, can flare to magnitude -8 (as bright as the crescent moon) but only for a few seconds before fading back to invisibility. They form a “constellation” of  some 66 satellites that provide data and voice communications.

A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective "Beacon" satellite. Credit:
A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective “Beacon” satellite. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

A concurrently-developed mobile app would allow users to know when Beacon would pass over a particular location. The students hope to achieve more than just track a bright, moving light across the sky. According to their website, the goal of the project is the “popularization of astronautics and space research in Russia, as well as improving the attractiveness of science and technology education among young people.” They want to show that almost anyone can build and send a spacecraft into orbit, not just corporations and governments.

Further, the students hope to test aerodynamic braking in the atmosphere and find out more about the density of air at orbital altitudes. Interested donors can give anywhere from 300 rubles (about $5) up 300,000 ($4,000). The more money, the more access you’ll have to the group and news of the satellite’s progress; the top donor will get invited to watch the launch on-site.

Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Liftoff! Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once finished with the Mayak Project, the team wants to built another version that uses that atmosphere for braking its speed and returning it — and future satellites — safely back to Earth without the need for retro-rockets.

I think all these goals are worthy, and I admire the students’ enthusiasm. I only hope that satellite launching doesn’t become so cheap and popular that we end up lighting up the night sky even further. What do you think?

Help a Universe Today Writer Share Stories About Our Search For Earth-like Planets

Since 1995, astronomers have detected thousands of worlds orbiting nearby stars, sparking a race to find the one that most resembles Earth. The discovery of habitable exoplanets and even extraterrestrial life is often referred to as the Holy Grail of science. So with the gold rush of exoplanet discoveries these days, it’s pretty tempting in news articles to lose readers in a fantastical narrative.

This month I’m launching a project on Beacon — a new independent platform for journalism — that will go behind the sensational headlines covering the search for Earth 2.0.

But I can’t do it without your help. In order to commit to writing about this on a regular basis, I need to raise $4,000 from subscribers who are willing to support my work over this month. Don’t worry, subscriptions are available for only $5 per month. This will supply the funding necessary to write for six months.

By Kepler’s definition, to be Earth-like a planet must be both Earth-size (less than 1.25 times Earth’s radius and less than twice Earth’s mass) and must circle its host star within the habitable zone: the band where liquid water can exist.

Image Credit: xkcd
Image Credit: xkcd

This simple, and yet variant, definition is a crucial starting point. But one glance at our Solar System (namely Venus and Mars) demonstrates that just because a planet is Earth-like doesn’t mean it’s an Earth twin.

So even if we do find Earth-like planets, we still don’t have the ability to know if they’re water worlds with luscious green planets and civilizations peering back at us.

But should we scale our definition of Earth-like planets up or down? Examples in the Solar System suggest that we should scale it down. Maybe planets located nearer to the center of the habitable zone are more congenial to life.

But can we base our definition on a single example — even if it’s the only example we know — alone? Theoretical astronomers suggest the picture is much more complicated. Life might arise on larger worlds, ones up to three times as massive as Earth, because they’re more likely to have an atmosphere due to more volcanic activity. Or life might arise on older worlds, where there’s simply more time for life to evolve.

It’s a crucial debate in astronomy research today, and it’s one that the media needs to handle with care. I am proud to be a part of Universe Today’s team, bringing readers up-to-date with the on goings in our local Universe. And Beacon will allow me to spend even more time, focusing on such a critical topic.

For each article, I will gather news, opinions and commentary from astronomers in the field. Not only do I have training as an astronomer, but my graduate school research focused on detecting exoplanet atmospheres from ground-based telescopes. With this deep-rooted understanding of the field at hand, I am able to parse complex information by directly reading peer-reviewed journal articles and interviewing astronomers I’ve met through my previous research.

But I really do need your help. Subscriptions are available for only $5 per month, and there are special rewards — such as gorgeous astronomy photos printed on canvas and gift subscriptions for friends — for people who subscribe at higher levels. You can directly subscribe here.

But here’s the best part: when you subscribe to my work, you’ll get access not only to all the stories I write, but the work of over 100 additional writers, based all over the world. This month Beacon is launching a series of astronomy projects, including one by Universe Today writer Elizabeth Howell.

Please help me write about our exciting search for Earth-like planets.

Here’s Your Chance To Fund A Universe Today Project On The Pluto Planethood Debate

New Horizons

This fall, Universe Today plans to get in-depth into the Pluto planethood debate. I (Elizabeth Howell) just launched a crowdfunding project on a new platform called Beacon that will allow me to fly down to Washington, D.C. for several days to interview Pluto scientists.

Should the project be funded, a few fun things are going to happen. Here, Universe Today readers will get a series of articles into the Pluto planethood debate. We’ll examine the controversial International Astronomical Union vote and why certain scientists still don’t believe Pluto is a dwarf planet today.

The question has special relevance today because NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on a journey to Pluto, and is less than a year from getting there. Examining Pluto will give scientists a window into how the solar system formed, which in turn gives us clues as to how the Earth came to be. We’ll have some stuff about the science as well; stay tuned for the details!

You’ll also get the chance to support astronomy education and outreach. I’m pleased to announce that CosmoQuest will be a partner on the project, receiving 15% of all proceeds for the project. If you contribute $250, $500 or $1,000, they will receive an additional 15% of your money. Contributors at this level will have their name mentioned in at least two of a series of six podcasts I will do for CosmoQuest’s 365 Days of Astronomy. There are other fun perks, too, so check out the Beacon page for more.

CosmoQuest-Logo-Full-sm3

As a freelance journalist, my challenge with doing travel stories is I have to pay my own way. Beacon solves that problem. It will allow me to spend a few days in person with scientists, gathering pictures and videos and podcasts, instead of relying on the phone interviews I usually conduct.

After paying contributions to CosmoQuest and to Beacon, every single cent remaining will be for travel expenses only. The money will give me a flight to Washington, D.C., a few nights in a reasonable hotel, and a car rental. I promise you that I’m extremely frugal — ask my mortgage broker — and I will spend every dollar of your contributions wisely. Additional money after $2,400 will allow me to draw a salary for the days I am there. If a substantial amount of extra money is raised, I’ll consider a second trip to D.C.

A NASA "poster" marking the one year to Pluto encounter by New Horizons. Credit: NASA
A NASA “poster” marking the one year to Pluto encounter by New Horizons. Credit: NASA

I’m not one to brag about my experience, but I will say that I’ve been proudly writing about space for a decade for many publications (including Universe Today). I’m one of the few journalists in Canada to focus on space virtually full-time. And I have covered some fun stories, such as three shuttle launches (2009-10), Chris Hadfield’s last mission (2012-13) and participating in a simulated Mars mission in Utah (early 2014). I see space as a field where I can always learn more, and this will be a great chance to share what I learn about Pluto with you.

Any questions? Feel free to get in touch with me at contact AT elizabethhowell DOT ca or to leave comments below. I likely won’t be able to respond until tomorrow as this launch coincidentally falls on a planned vacation day for me, but I promise that for the rest of the campaign I’ll answer your queries as fast as I can.