For at least the next several weeks, those taking the time to look into the nighttime sky may witness one of the brightest artificial objects ever sent into orbit.
Called the Mayak, the Russian word for "beacon," the small, toaster-sized cubesat was successfully launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan last weekend. The satellite was developed and built by students at the Moscow State University of Mechanical Engineering (MSUME) thanks to more than $30,000 in crowdfunding support.
Now in orbit some 373 miles above Earth, the Mayak will deploy four triangular mylar solar reflectors measuring 170 square feet across. If successful, this solar sail will make the Mayak the brightest human-made object in space, outshining such natural beauties like Venus. Some Mayak team members believe the sail could even approach a magnitude of minus 10, which would place it within striking distance of the brightness of a full moon.
Not just another pretty face
While Mayak's visual potential is garnering attention from around the world, there's a serious mission behind its design. The solar sail is part of a new "space brakes" system that the engineering team is testing as a way to quickly de-orbit the satellite and force its fiery destruction in the upper atmosphere. If successful, the same system could be applied to future satellites as a way to decrease the growing issue of space junk in orbit around Earth, without the need for a booster.
Those interested seeing Mayak's bright glide across the heavens can use online tracking sites like N2YO and Heavens Above. As of this article's publication, there were still no public reports of the satellite making any kind of visual impression.
As you might expect, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of adding yet another source of man-made light pollution to the night sky.
"We fight so hard for dark skies in and around our planet," Nick Howes, an astronomer and former deputy director of the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland, told IFLScience. "To see this being potentially ruined by some ridiculous crowdfunded nonsense makes my heart simply despair."
Should Mayak prove to be a hinderance to astronomers, such an inconvenience will thankfully be short-lived. Once its solar sail is unfurled, the satellite's designers expect that it will remain in orbit for a little over a month before creating a final light show as a shooting star in the Earth's atmosphere.