A Russian student satellite was recently launched (along with 72 other satellites) into low earth orbit (LEO). Mayak is Russia’s first crowdfunded satellite project. The primary goal is to demonstrate that a small satellite can be de-orbited passively by deploying a large form that greatly increases the drag of the spacecraft as it passes through the extremely thin upper atmosphere in LEO.

Mayak, which is about the size of a loaf of bread (10cm x 10cm x 34 cm),  will inflate a tetrahedron-shaped form covered in reflective sheets. This will not only increase its drag but will also make it very bright in the night sky: Almost as Bright as the Moon? New Satellite Might Light Up the Sky – Sky & Telescope.

Each surface is four square meters on a side and should be readily visible from the ground on a twilight pass. In fact, the team claims, Mayak will be the “brightest shooting star” once unfurled, almost as bright as the full Moon at magnitude –10. Mayak could be visible in bright twilight and perhaps even during daytime passes as well.

The satellite tracking website Heavens-Above has created a Mayak tracking tool that will tell you when Mayak will pass over your location.

The plan is to fly Mayak in a stabilized mode for the first four weeks, then set it tumbling on all three axes, setting off a brilliant twinkling pattern. The team’s site mentions using brightness estimations from Mayak to gather information about air density at high altitude and to calibrate brightness estimations for future satellites.

The reflector will also speed up reentry once deployed, utilizing both solar wind pressure and atmospheric drag. Such devices may become a standard feature on future satellites, enabling them to de-orbit shortly after their mission ends rather than adding to the growing tally of space junk in low-Earth orbit. Nanosail-D2 tested a similar technology in 2011, and another mission recently dispatched from the International Space Station, InflateSail, is currently testing the same method.

The University of Toronto’s CanX-7  satellite, launched last September, deployed a drag sail in May and it quickly demonstrated its de-orbiting effect.

Here is a video of the launch of the Soyuz rocket that  put the 73 satellites into orbit: