Alexander Shaenko, a Candidate of Science in Engineering and the head of the “Mayak” satellite project came to Voronezh to read his lecture “The Beauty of Space and Cosmonautics”. The performance took place as part of the “Scientific Meetings of the ICNI (Information Center of Nuclear Industry). The Resonance” Festival which was held from October 24 to 27. Voronezh residents were able to attend lectures by famous scientists and science promoters for free. The festival was organized by the Voronezh Information Center of Nuclear Energy.

Why do breakthroughs in the space industry happen rarer and rarer, when will people fly to Mars and why is space a promising and cheap target for business – all of this was told by Alexander Shaenko in his interview to a RIA “Voronezh” correspondent.


– The space industry used to develop rapidly. A man was sent into space only four years after the launch of the first satellite, and in eight more years, people had landed on the Moon. However, after that, breakthroughs started happening rarer and rarer. Why?

– At first, cosmonautics was a domain of enthusiasts. Their books had raised a new generation of space engineers who managed to find funding and did what they loved doing. By the end of the Second World War, everyone started to realize that the future belonged to rocket weapons. Then governments began investing money in the development of rockets for military purposes. However, the people who were engaged in it were the same engineers raised on the books of space enthusiasts. They understood that one could take the warhead off a rocket, put a satellite there and launch it into space. And that’s what happened. Russia was testing the R-7 military ballistic missile. During one of the launches, the engineers removed the warhead, installed a satellite and launched it into orbit. The effect this development had on the global community was colossal. A similar effect would be if we would have developed a teleport today. At that point, America was considered the most technologically advanced country in the world, and suddenly it got outran by our country. The politicians appreciated it and began extensively funding the space programme. As a result, the first man was sent to space four years after the launch of the first satellite.

That is truly a cosmic speed of technology development. But there is an important nuance to it. The launch of the first satellite wasn’t very expensive since we had already had a readymade rocket. Launching a man into space required a different rocket but it was still tolerable in terms of cost. However, the next steps in space exploration were getting more and more expensive. When the Americans realized they were falling behind, they raised the bar. Their goal was for a man to land on the Moon. The task was so expensive, that at the peak of the funding they were spending 4.5% of their country’s expenditure budget. Today, they spend approximately eight times less than that.

The next goal after conquering the Moon was supposed to be launching a man to Mars. But it turned out to be so expensive, that neither we nor the Americans could afford it. The politicians realized that a country’s prestige can be maintained with cheaper methods – for example, victories in sports. So nowadays cosmonautics is, of course, progressing, but not so rapidly, even though the technologies are becoming cheaper and more accessible. I think that In the future a big part in space exploration will be played by private companies. The technologies will develop due to the competition between them.


– Why is Mars namely considered the next target of humanity? After all, it isn’t the closest planet to the Earth.

– There aren’t that many celestial objects in the Universe we could explore at the current technological level. Roughly speaking, there are only three of them. That’s the Moon, our satellite, and two planets closest to us – Venus and Mars. The Moon is the closest, but we’ve already been there. In addition, it is quite hard to explore. It has no atmosphere to protect it from space radiation and meteorites. So setting up a colony there would be quite problematic.

The next closest planet is Venus. But it is too hot (the average temperature is +467 degrees) and has too high atmospheric pressure (around 93 bars). The conditions on Mars are much more similar to the Earth: the average temperature on the equator can reach +20 degrees during summer, the pressure is 6.1 bars. Therefore, Mars is the most promising planet for colonization. Of course, theoretically, we can also reach Jupiter’s satellites – for example, Europa or Ganymede. But they are very far away, so such an expedition would be very expensive.

– If today’s space technologies allow us to send a man on Mars, why haven’t humans visited it yet?

– It is true that the existing rockets, fuel types and life support systems allow doing it. But to swim across an ocean, for example, you can use both a log and a ship. If you use a ship, you’ll have better chances to reach your destination. Increasing the chance of success requires more advanced technologies. I think that first of all we need to improve the engines in order to use less fuel to reach Mars. If we were to build a spacecraft today, it would have a liquid fuel engine – it uses liquids or liquefied gases such as hydrogen, oxygen or kerosene as fuel. Their density impulse (a rocket engine efficiency index) is 500 seconds at the most. If we manage to master nuclear engines, they will be twice as efficient. And powerful ion engines will be even more effective. Their jet thrust is created by ionized gas accelerated to a high speed in an electrostatic field. Such engines already exist but their thrust power is too low. To create a spacecraft to fly to Mars based on them, they would have to be assembled into a very big battery. They can be improved, but it will take 5 to 6 years.


– Does space exploration have a practical point or does humanity do it strictly for scientific purposes?

– Space is not just science. There are developments you can use and even sell. The three main fields developed right now are satellite communications, satellite navigation and surveying the Earth from space. For example, when being used, a satellite phone does not connect to a cell tower, it connects to a satellite in orbit. Using such a phone you can call home from the middle of the Pacific Ocean where there are no cell towers and, of course, no mobile connection. It’s a very good thing for places that for some reason. have no mobile connection.

Another field is satellite navigation. For example, your smartphone can receive information from satellites, so it has a functioning navigator. Another space development used in your phone’s navigator is cartography. There is a satellite in orbit with a powerful camera. It takes pictures of streets bridges, rivers and lakes, and that’s how a map is made.

Satellites are also used for transmitting the television signal, which allows us to put up a satellite dish and watch satellite TV. It is done by both state-owned and private companies. But they all use space for profit. Satellite communication and television are paid for by the customers, satellite navigation – by the manufacturers of chips installed in our smartphones and other devices.

– You’ve supervised a team which for the first time in Russia has launched a satellite into space using crowdfunding. Why did you decide to do the “Mayak” project?

– I wanted to demonstrate that cosmonautics are accessible, that you don’t need enormous investments to be engaged in developments in this field, and that it doesn’t require a whole research institution working on it. You don’t even have to work at Roscosmos for it. People watch the news about foreign space projects, about Elon Musk and think that such things can only be done abroad and only by billionaires. But it isn’t so. I just decided to show everyone that it was possible and came up with the “Mayak” project – a satellite that would glow in the sky like a star.


Satellite testing

Photo – provided by Alexander Shaenko

– How did you gather your team?

– I simply placed an ad on a field-specific webpage in a social network. I wrote that there was an interesting project, and everyone willing to participate was welcomed. And people came. An interesting fact is that I was the only one in the assembled team who had ever been engaged in cosmonautics. The rest were anyone at all: from engineers of different sorts to PR people. All in all, the “Mayak” project involved 43 people. But since it all was done in a hobby format, some of them had started working at a certain point and left after a while. There were even people who had specifically come here from another city to tighten up a screw and know that their screw would fly into space. The main core of the team consisted of 15 people. We worked on the satellite in our free time, and the money for its construction was collected via a crowdfunding platform. We’ve had two crowdfunding runs. There were periods when we had to immediately pay for some work but we had no money, so we had to invest our own. But it was very interesting and exciting, and we did finally build the mechanism. The satellite had cost us a total of almost 2.5 million rubles. As you can see, it’s not little, but it’s also not astronomical. The whole project took us around four years – from 2014 to late 2017. That’s not astronomical either.


Satellite launch

Photo – courtesy of Alexander Shaenko

– What parts did you use to assemble the satellite? Is it really possible to buy spare parts for a spacecraft somewhere just like that?

– We designed all the parts ourselves and made them to order. For example, the boards were ordered at an ordinary enterprise near Moscow, the hardware was made in Nizhny Novgorod, and so on.


Disassembled satellite model

Photo – courtesy of Alexander Shaenko

– Did your satellite have any tasks besides just being in orbit?

– The main task was to show that space is more accessible than everyone thinks. In addition, we solved some scientific and technical tasks. The first was clearing the debris from orbit. Now various man-made objects that are out of order, either remain in the earth orbit, or are moved from orbit with the help of engines. But installing engines on all the objects is difficult and expensive. In addition, an orientation system is needed in order to control these engines precisely. This can be a problem. After entering orbit, our “Mayak” was supposed to open a solar reflector in the form of a pyramid of metallized film, which is 20 times thinner than a human hair. Due to this, it starts to slow down faster in the atmosphere and drifts down gradually. According to the plan, it was supposed to circle in orbit only a month, and then go down into the denser layers of the atmosphere, and burn there. In the future, the detailed technology can be used to move the space debris from orbit.

The second task is to make an object that will glow with a certain, predetermined brightness. This would allow to check the calculations of the apparent stellar magnitude of various space objects. Therefore, the film, released by the satellite, was a solar reflector.


The satellite reflector film

Photo – courtesy of Alexander Shaenko

The third task was to study the density of the upper atmosphere. The apparatus, which would have a large area due to the film pyramid, had to react very actively to a change in the density of the environment. For example, there has been a flash on the Sun, the atmosphere has swelled, has become denser, and the apparatus starts to slow down faster. The atmosphere could be changed very accurately.

– Did you manage to complete all the planned tasks?

– Yes and no. The launch of the satellite took place, Roscosmos arranged it for us. It was their initiative, they called us and offered their help, which was very unexpected. The fact is that the launch of our spacecraft costs about 10 million rubles on the market. When someone calls you and offers a service that is worth such money for free, you involuntarily start looking for a catch. But my fears were not justified. We really did not pay even a ruble for the launch. And it was successful, our apparatus reached orbit. But it was not perfect at all. 73 other apparatuses were launched together with our one. As far as we know, ten of them died. Apparently, a leak of hydrazine, which is used as fuel, happened during the launch. In a vacuum, it disintegrated into free radicals, which reacted with the materials of some satellites and led them to failure. We wrote about this version, and a rather large stream of criticism fell on us, including from Roscosmos. In early March of this year, it became known that one company, which launched their apparatus into orbit together with our one, got coverage right because a hydrazine leak occurred. This is probably a confirmation of our version.

Anyway, the reflective pyramid of our satellite, apparently, did not open, and we did not see its glow in the sky. However, the number of evidence allows us to see that the satellite did not fall from orbit. That is, it now flies in the sky, but not as a bright star, but as a dark brick.


Launch of the satellite from the Baikonur cosmodrome, 2017

Photo – courtesy of Alexander Shaenko

– Would you like to go into space?

– Well, I would not refuse to go there once, but I would not like to become a professional astronaut. You know, an astronaut and a space industry engineer are very different professions, just like a pilot and an aircraft designer. One likes to control the mechanisms, the other – to make these mechanisms. I like to make more.

– Now only specially trained people can fly into space. It is difficult for an ordinary person to endure the overloads during the launch and a long stay in weightlessness. Why don’t scientists and space engineers struggle with these obstacles in the way of people into space? Is it really an unsolvable task?

– There is no such a task. The goals that people now set for themselves in space are reached with the flights of a small number of people. They do not need to be massive. If it is required that as many people as possible fly into space, there will probably be other spaceships, other rockets, and the situation will be less complicated. It will be like with the aviation – at first it was only for brave souls and heroes, but now anyone can get on a plane and go, for example, to the south.


– What must happen in order to make space travel just as common?

– I think it must become commercially viable. For example, you have built a hotel in orbit. In order it pays off, you need a thousand people a year to fly there. You have to make it so that almost anyone can fly there on your rocket. Then you should make another rocket. In general, space should become a business.

– How can an ordinary person come up with a profitable space project?

– We, having launched our own satellite, proved that it is not necessary to spend cosmic money on the creation of a spacecraft. In my opinion, business ideas should come from a person and from his or her interests. I will give you an example. In addition to space technology, I am also engaged in education in the field of cosmonautics. Once I held a training course in astronautics for non-major engineers and humanities students at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. Very different people came there: from a guy who studied to be a director and made a movie about space, to a manager from Roscosmos. So, this manager had a colleague from Kaliningrad. She came up with such a project. In Kaliningrad, the sea sometimes brings amber to the shore. But this does not happen anywhere, but only where there is a certain slope of the coast in relation to the waves. She suggested making a service for tourists, which helps to find places where there are all conditions for the appearance of amber with the help of satellite images. People will open the app and see where to go to pick up amber. I would have never thought of such use of astronautics.


– Do you have your own, private project in the field of astronautics?

– Yes. Now we are engaged in a startup in the field of space biotechnology. We are developing a biological closed cycle life-support system. Long interplanetary flights, for example, to Mars, and the construction of a space base require the creation of a closed cycle of food, air and water. Roughly speaking, when we fly to the ISS, we need to take with us supplies of air, water and food, and bring new ones when we are run out of them. The earth where we live is also an object that flies in space. But everything is arranged a little differently here. There is a cycle of substances in nature. The biosphere is closed. It consumes only the energy of the sun. There is nothing more to bring here from the outside. Our goal is to create a closed biosphere on the ship that would receive only energy from the outside.

In Soviet times, two research groups in different institutes, the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow and the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk were engaged in similar developments. The essence of the project is as follows. Microscopic algae – chlorella or spirulina –live in a special large apparatus. They release oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide and serve as animal feed, which will also be on board. However, the main problem was that these closed systems required too much energy. For the operation of one of such apparatuses, 45 kW of electricity were needed, and only 35 kW were produced at the Mir station for three people. It was a huge consumption. Therefore, the program has not been implemented. We met with people who were engaged in this project in Soviet times, and together we want to make the development more energy efficient. Fortunately, modern technologies allow it. When our apparatus is ready, we plan to send it into space with experimental animals – mice or cockroaches. If everything goes well, we will offer our apparatus to those who will be engaged in deep-space flights. I really want this to be our country.