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Should We — and Can We — Advertise in Space?

Getting a billboard into orbit may be the easy part

Illustration: Shira Inbar

WWhen a Russian startup called StartRocket revealed its plans for orbital billboards earlier this year, it was met with both skepticism from technologists and dismay from anyone who might prefer an unadulterated view of the night sky — astronomers very much included.

StartRocket’s plan is to use an array of up to 300 tiny satellites with reflective sails to display luminous logos in low-Earth orbit, visible from Earth. Each tiny sail would unfurl to create an advertising message over a big city for six minutes at a time.

In April, the company teamed up with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, established in 2011 in collaboration with MIT, to test the reflective material. Together they successfully launched a probe and an angular reflector with light film attached to it — dubbed a “light pixel” — into the stratosphere. StartRocket confirmed it could be seen from the Earth. “We tested [the fabric’s] properties by raising it 180 meters above the ground at sunset,” Vladilen Sitnikov, StartRocket’s CEO, said in a statement. “We fastened the reflector with ropes and directed Xenon lights at it — their light temperature is the closest to that of the su — and observed a distinct spot of light.”

The startup will now begin the development of its satellites at a cost of about $25 million. But there’s a snag: The company says it needs to attract millions of dollars in investment by October of this year for an orbital test launch. Despite this, it already has a test launch partner in the Adrenaline Rush drinks company, part of PepsiCo Russia. StartRocket’s plan is to show a peace symbol as part of its testing in 2021, followed by its first branded image — the logo of GameChangers, a campaign to dispel negative stereotypes of gamers. So far so good?

TTurning our skies into a cosmic Times Square isn’t a new idea. As 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong take one small step onto the moon on TV in 1969, they were also bombarded with product placement from the likes of Hasselblad, Sony, and Omega in the form of high-tech gadgets the astronaut heroes used and wore. In the 1990s, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft carried logos and even a Japanese TV journalist in return for publicity and money, and in 1997, the first commercial was filmed aboard the Mir space station. But advertising stunts were about to get bigger.

Pizza Hut delivered fast food to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001, and in 2012, some 8 million YouTube viewers watched Felix Baumgartner plummet towards Earth from nearly 130,000 feet up for Red Bull’s infamous Stratos space jump. In 2018, SpaceX blasted a Tesla Roadster into space on the maiden mission of its Falcon Heavy rocket, and NASA’s Curiosity Rover is currently printing the initials of its creators in Morse code on Mars, thanks to markings on its wheels.

Cosmic ads have also been proposed before, by a U.S. company called Space Marketing in 1993. It planned to launch an illuminated “pace billboard” into low orbit, to be easily read by captive Earthlings. The billboard would have been made from Mylar film which would, they claimed, have made it as large and bright as the moon. But they failed to raise the cash, and the project never happened.

Is StartRocket’s plan just another ambitious fantasy? Money is its first challenge; to launch these satellites into orbit by 2021 and install the display as planned, the company needs to raise more than $220 million.

The technology itself does have some precedent, however: David Spencer, director of the Space Flight Projects Laboratory at Purdue University in Indiana, led solar sail missions in a project called LightSail 1 in 2015, which demonstrated that a solar sail could be successfully deployed from CubeSat mini-satellites. “Similar to a pixel-based display, they ‘turn on’ the reflected sunlight from a square sail by orienting the sail relative to the sun, such that the reflected photons are directed toward Earth,” Spencer explained. However, maintaining the correct configuration of the CubeSats is very difficult, so StartRocket plans to fit each of the 10-centimeter-wide satellites with an ion thruster so they can be moved into position.

But Daniel Batcheldor, head of Florida Tech’s department of Aerospace, Physics and Space Sciences, believes there’s a bigger problem. Given its distance from Earth, the constellation would probably be as visible as the ISS is from the ground. “ISS is in low-Earth orbit and is about the size of a football field when the solar panels are included,” he said. “From the ground it can be seen by a limited number of people for a few minutes every few weeks, at night, when it’s not cloudy. StartRocket’s vision for space-based adverts is not realistic.”

“We do not allow advertising in national parks so as to protect their natural wonder,” Batcheldor added. “The same should be applied to space, in my opinion.”

StartRocket does not seem deterred. “We’ve seen the reaction to our project and a lot of people are criticizing us,” Sitnikov said in an email to OneZero. “As for skeptics who doubt that our project is possible to realize, we will answer them later, when our first image — the peace sign — will appear in the sky. It will happen in 2021.”

Well ahead of its launch, the company has already announced that the fee to advertise will start at $200,000, with the potential to run three ads each day. The cost per thousand visitors is between $10 and $15 and depends on weather conditions. “If it is cloudy in Moscow in November, the cost will be as low as possible,” Sitnikov said. For a global audience, these fees are arguably quite low compared to the rumored $65 million Red Bull spent on its Stratos stunt, but StartRocket also has to navigate some complex legalities about advertising in space.

“What happens when the next hypothetical cryptocurrency billionaire decides to launch his 23-story Hello Kitty rocket into orbit? What if the rocket were a 23-story giant Twinkie?”

After the first tangible threat of a space billboard in 1993, the U.S. government scrambled to put rules in place banning obtrusive space ads. Title 51 of the United States Code prohibits “advertising in outer space that is capable of being recognized by a human being on the surface of the Earth,” describing it as “obtrusive.” However, it does allow commercial advertising on vehicles and other product placement.

Steven Mirmina, a professor of space law at Georgetown University Law Center and a senior attorney at NASA, described Elon Musk’s Tesla stunt as “ridiculous” in a Harvard Law Review blog post and took it to task for its “intentional pollution of the outer space environment.” But current space law doesn’t prohibit more of the same, he said. “What happens when the next hypothetical cryptocurrency billionaire decides to launch his 23-story Hello Kitty rocket into orbit? What if the rocket were a 23-story giant Twinkie?”

Article 1 of the U.N. Outer Space Treaty stipulates the freedom for exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes. It also says that every nation should have access to use space accordingly, as long as they don’t cause harm to others’ activities. “Technically, if advertising from space would not cause harmful interference or violate any other norms of international customary or treaty law, it may be permissible,” explained Sara Langston, assistant professor of spaceflight operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

Astronomers and environmentalists argue that there are profound diplomatic, legal, and ethical problems with space advertising. “Clogging up orbit and spectrum usage for mere obtrusive advertisement is going to raise issues in the international community,” said Langston. “We have enough challenges with space sustainability, managing space traffic, space debris, [and] spectrum congestion space weather risks, not to mention the negative implications and harmful interference for Earth-based science and astronomy.”

StartRocket is adamant that its satellites won’t end up as space junk because they will only remain in space for one year. “After that we will bring them from orbit to the atmosphere where they will burn. All our CubeSats are remotely guided,” Sitnikov said. He added that the satellite array could also be used to share information during natural disasters when there is no phone network. “We do not fly over nature reserves, and we do not aim at telescopes of astronomers who are outside major cities.”

However, if the project edges closer to becoming reality, there are sure to be more objections that could delay its launch. Langston, for one, is still not convinced this is the beginning of a new space advertising race. “Given our current state of technology and geopolitical climate, not to mention the significant costs of launch and maintaining on-orbit activities,” she said, “I don’t think public, political, or professional opinion is currently in favor of obtrusive advertising from space.”

Science Journalist

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