Russia's amateur sputnik will brighten the night sky

Russian professionals, students, and makers developed the Mayak satellite with the support of Russian crowdfunding. When the Mayak cubesat (the grey box at the lower right) reaches its 600-kilometer orbit, it will deploy a tetrahedral reflector. Sunlight bouncing off Mayak's shiny surface will make it brighter than any star in the night sky. Credit: Mayak Project

The 1957 launch of Sputnik ushered in the Space Age. The world watched in amazement and paranoia as the small point of light passed overhead in the night sky. Later this year the light reflecting off a crowdfunded satellite called Mayak may mark a new age of Russian amateur space exploration.

Mayak, which means "beacon", will deploy a tetrahedral-shaped solar reflector when it reaches its six hundred kilometer orbit. Sunlight reflecting off Mayak will make it the brightest object in the night sky, visible from every city on Earth. The off-duty engineers, students, and makers developing Mayak hope it will “remind the world who was first in space”, show that space exploration is no longer limited to space agencies, and inspire Russian youth to study science and technology.

Many crowdfunded space projects either fail to reach their crowdfunding goals or fail to deliver their promises. The Mayak project has a pedigree that inspires faith in its potential. The project’s leader, Alexander Shaenko, is an aerospace engineer who worked on the Angara launch vehicle as well as a Russian entry in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition. He joined Moscow State University of Mechanical Engineering University to create the “modern cosmonautics” program to give students hands-on experience developing space projects. In addition to the students, the Mayak team includes a number of space enthusiasts, roboticists, and 3D printing developers.

In addition to the team’s pedigree, the Mayak project already has a successful track record. This is the project’s second crowdfunding effort. A 2014 Boomstarter project funded stratospheric tests of the reflector system on high altitude balloon flights. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has enough confidence in the project to reserve space on a mid-2016 rocket launch.

A strong team, a strong track record, and industry support led more than 2,600 Boomstarter sponsors to carry the project past its original 1.5 million ruble goal. With 60 hours left, the project is close to reaching its 2 million ruble (~$28,000) stretch goal which will let the team create a model to exhibit at the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow.