A feasibility study suggests millions of dollars can be made by using fleets of bright cubesats to form advertisements high above Earth. It’s a clearly terrible idea, as it would tarnish our already-threatened views of the night sky.
The purpose of the new paper, published in Aerospace, was to evaluate the “economic feasibility of a space advertising mission that would launch a formation of satellites into orbit to reflect sunlight and display commercials in the sky above cities,” according to a Skotech press release. Shamil Biktimirov, a research intern at Skoltech’s Engineering Center, is the first author of the paper.
Biktimirov and his colleagues, which included a team from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, envision 50 or more cubesats working in concert to create images that are visible from highly populated urban areas. Factors considered included fuel consumption and longevity of the satellites, the population sizes of target cities, and local ad costs. The researchers estimate that a single mission would cost about $65 million. “An unrealistic idea as it may first seem, space advertising turns out to have a potential for commercial viability,” wrote the researchers in their study.
“It will not surprise you to learn that I am not a fan,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, wrote to me in an email. The “bright advertising messages themselves will be localized to urban areas,” but the “brightness of these solar sail satellites will still be substantial in other places and times,” which is something the Russian researchers didn’t consider, he said. To which McDowell added: “The entire idea of this kind of inescapable space-borne advertising is fundamentally dystopian.”
The Russian researchers, in full anticipation of this kind of negative response, defended their idea, saying the ads would only appear at dawn or dusk (the cubesats require at least some exposure to sunlight to become bright and visible) and that the space-based ads only make economic sense for “large cities that are already exposed to permanent light pollution.”
The authors propose that the ads appear above the most profitable city within reach for a full minute before moving on to the next victim, er, city. This would be possible as the satellites would be placed in circular Sun-synchronous orbits that straddle the day-night boundary. This type of orbit “guarantees that formation satellites will always be lit by the Sun, and its access area will constantly include points on Earth where the lighting condition is satisfied,” the scientists write. An estimated $2 million in advertising revenue could be made with this approach, so the whole thing could be paid off in about a month, the scientists argue. A single fleet of cubesats could operate in this fashion for “several months” depending on the configuration, they write.
These sorts of ideas are upsettingly common. Back in 2018, Rocket Lab launched Humanity Star, a 3-foot-wide mirror, into space. The ghastly diamond-shaped Orbital Reflector, also launched in 2018, never really worked and is now officially space junk. Russian company StartRocket and PepsiCo toyed with the idea three years ago, threatening to promote energy drinks with artificial constellations.
Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you have to do that thing. Space-based ads may be feasible, but they’d represent an eyesore of cosmological proportions, tarnishing our natural, unobstructed views of space. That our cities are already flooded with light pollution and ads on the ground is hardly an excuse to embark on such an endeavor. Here’s hoping that sensibility will prevail and that ads for soft drinks and fast food stay on the ground.