Space Billboards Are Just the Latest Orbital Stunt

Casey Chin; Getty Images

In January 2018, Rocket Lab sent a surprise to orbit. Along with its normal payloads, the launch company deployed a shiny object it dubbed the Humanity Star—basically a 3-foot-wide disco ball. Its reflective surface would shine down on Earth’s inhabitants, visible to the naked eye for a few months. “No matter where you are in the world, or what is happening in your life, everyone will be able to see the Humanity Star in the night sky,” founder Peter Beck said in a statement. “Our hope is that everyone looking at the Humanity Star will look past it to the vast expanse of the Universe and think a little differently about their lives, actions, and what is important for humanity.”

Astronomers, concerned with light pollution, tended to take a dimmer view. “This is stupid, vandalizes the night sky and corrupts our view of the cosmos,” tweeted Columbia University professor David Kipping.

Over in Russia, a guy named Vlad Sitnikov saw it differently from both Beck and the scientists. “For me, it is great,” he says, “because someone made something new, and it was entertainment.” Though lots of people tune in to livestreams of rocket launches as one might to a TV drama, their purpose isn’t entertainment. The idea that a person could use space in this way intrigued Sitnikov.

Soon, he started to think maybe he could use space in this way, for entertainment. More specifically, for advertising. “I decided to check the ability," he says. "Can we make the billboard in the sky?”

Yes, maybe. To pursue the idea, Sitnikov founded StartRocket, which plans to use a hundreds-strong constellation of CubeSats, each equipped with a reflective sail, to display ads, and perhaps emergency and event-based messages.

Though this particular endeavor is new and has yet to get off the literal ground, it’s not the first overhead ad/entertainment project. Tilt your head at a certain angle, and that’s what the Humanity Star was. In 1993, an American company wanted to launch a square-kilometer Mylar sheet: the Space Billboard . France considered celebrating the anniversaries of the French Revolution and the Eiffel Tower with a set of satellites called the Ring of Light . The 1996 Atlanta Olympics? It also could have had a space show, but it didn’t get enough funding.

Maybe you find the future that this portends distasteful. Maybe StartRocket’s homepage picture of people sitting on a hill above a city, a fiddled-with Coke logo (it looks like “Loca Cola”) beaming over the buildings, to be too dystopian. Maybe you find Loca Cola no more intrusive than the lights of the city below. Maybe you even think it’s fun (taste the feeling!). Like it or not, there’s no international ban on space advertising. With access to orbit going down in price and more companies hoping to do business up there, StartRocket’s vision is unlikely to be the only one of its kind.

But Sitnikov is neither rocket scientist nor satellite engineer. He was just a guy with an idea—and a Facebook account. He launched a competition on his page, where he has a few thousand followers, “so everybody could propose their own ideas about how to make images on orbit." Along came Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology , and the idea to use small satellites and reflecting sails that unfurl and furl back. With an array of 200 to 300 (and a few spares), StartRocket plans to use each satellite’s 10-meter sail as a pixel—when deployed, it’s “on”; when stashed, it’s “off.” In the lowest orbit, they'd each be about 100 meters apart. By lighting up different ones, it can create different images. “It’s not rocket science,” quips Sitnikov.

The trickier part is keeping hundreds of satellites in tight, precise formation. It takes constant adjustment—repeatedly firing the satellites' little thrusters and guzzling precious fuel—and precise knowledge of where the satellites are versus where they should be.

That’s part of where Alexei Skorupsky comes in. Helping out with StartRocket is his hobby; his day job is at a satellite monitoring company called ScanEx, which works with some of the biggest names in the geospatial business, such as the US Geological Survey, DigitalGlobe, and Airbus. “I understand how to launch satellites in Russia,” Skorupsky says. “What vehicles can be used, and how much it can take to develop this satellite, and who can help us.”

He admits that tracking the satellites and controlling their movements will be serious challenges. But he’s happy to help, because it could change the tenor of space, he says. “Before such a project, space technology is very serious,” he says. “The scope of this technology should be wider.”

The first real-world test is planned for this spring, pushed back from the fall. It involves testing out reflecting material on stratospheric balloons, flown above Russia, to see if calculations about its appearance are correct. Then, of course, one must assemble the CubeSats and their sails; they must launch and reach the right orbits, align with one another, stay in that configuration, and have their pixels light up on command. No big deal!

Those are technical questions—but what about the pesky legal and ethical ones? Let’s start with the astronomers. The night sky is a delicate thing, the natural blobs and penlights easily washed out by synthetic glare, whether it comes from the ground or orbit.

A paper that the International Astronomical Union presented to the United Nations points out that although astronomers can build observatories in remote regions where city lights don’t blind, things in the sky show up everywhere. “Scattered light from sunlit spacecraft and space debris, and radio noise from communications satellites and global positioning systems in space, reach the entire surface of the Earth,” its authors write. “No place is sheltered from these disturbances, and a pristine sky is no longer to be found anywhere on Earth, including developing countries. Already, this loss is irreversible.”

To this, Sitnikov would point out that his Loca Cola constellation will show up in any given sky for only six minutes at a time, and that the pixels could all be turned off if they threatened to mess up something big. He plans for the display to show up only at dusk and dawn, and only over populated areas. But space-based light pollution isn’t limited to ads or inadvertent transmissions like the ones described above. In addition to the Humanity Star, artist Trevor Paglen launched a light-bouncing balloon called the Orbital Reflector. The Russian Znamya mirror missions were supposed to extend the short northern workday (not exactly successful). China has a low-key plan for an artificial moon to replace streetlights. In short, ideas abound on how to keep orbit lit.

But what the Astronomical Union wrote in its paper isn’t a law. Zeldine O’Brien, a barrister and an expert in space legalities, says that international law doesn’t prohibit space advertising. “There’s no explicit ban," she says. "If anything, space law provides for free access and free use of space.” But if a country or an intergovernmental organization has signed on to the Outer Space Treaty , it is bound by its tenets: Basically, it says nobody can own parts of space, so be peaceful and carry out activities in the interest of all countries.

Since there’s no global prohibition, if a company proposes something that could violate the rights of other nations, or infringe on others' activities, the company’s home country and the launching country have to make the go/no-go determination (through the licensing and authorization processes). They also could be liable for the behavior of space companies who operate within their borders.

In the US, though, the situation is a little simpler: It’s the only country that, on the national level, bans space advertising—if it’s “obtrusive” or capable of being recognized from Earth. (So “SpaceX” on the side of a rocket, or a logo on the side of ispace's planned lunar rover, wouldn’t count.)

But—bear with the trolling here—might there even be some good to be found in this obtrusion? O’Brien, in a paper called “Advertising in Space: Sales at the Outer Limits,” points to an argument made by assistant US attorney Frank Balsamello: “If revenue from space advertising is used to fund expanding access to and exploration of space, Balsamello suggests the activity could be considered as being in the common interest of all mankind,” and so in line with the Outer Space Treaty. No one's tested this out IRL, though.

Plus, according to J. H. Huebert and economist Walter Block, this is not so different from planes flying LUV U banners, or the Goodyear Blimp. Their “ In Defense of Advertising in Space ” presents aesthetic counterarguments (some people like billboards, for example) and scientific ones (maybe astronomers shouldn't take precedence over commercial interests).

We can hash out those issues for hours, but there is something to be said for balancing science and commercial enterprise. As Balsamello puts it , “Advertising and ‘peddling’ products actually confirm that we are a people who can efficiently combine scientifically valuable exploration with economically valuable private commerce.”

No one’s sure whether these obtrusive plans will take off. Nonobtrusive logos, such as Blue Origin's feather and NASA’s meatball (don’t @ me, it’s an ad), have been with us in space always. But after 60-plus years of space launches, no one’s actually pulled off a proverbial space billboard. Maybe it’s not worth the technological and regulatory effort. Maybe the backlash from people who hate Loca Cola and love telescopes will prove too high a cost.

Maybe that’s part of why Sitnikov doesn’t just want to do ads: StartRocket should be for any kind of message. “Huge events like the Olympics or the Super Bowl or, I don’t know, maybe news agencies … Government could use it in an emergency state—fire, earthquake, blackout.”

Happy New Year! ” he then suggests. “Or a peace sign.” That, he thinks, will be the first image up there.

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