Should We — and Can We — Advertise in Space?
Getting a billboard into orbit may be the easy part
When 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?
Turning 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…