A team of researchers from Russia’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology recently examined the possibility of using satellite formations to place ads in the farthest reaches of our atmosphere. At first, it may sound like these ads would be for astronauts’ eyes only (and the researchers did think of that, noting in their study the existence of branded food deliveries to the ISS and logos painted onto rocket bodies). Unfortunately for the rest of us, this isn’t the case. For their hypothetical space ad, the researchers proposed using multiple CubeSat nanosatellites, each equipped with a solar reflector, to put light-based “billboards” in the sky.
Each satellite would effectively place a solar reflector in sun-synchronous orbit, ensuring the reflector is able to beam light down to Earth at all times. Individual points of light would assemble almost like the pegs on a Lite-Brite to create a word or an image. Operators could make changes to the formation using aerodynamics drag-based control, thus enabling them to change the ad itself and ensure the lights are far enough apart to be distinguishable.
Sounds prohibitively expensive, right? It depends on who you ask. With equipment, fuel, and operational costs, the researchers estimate the average mission would cost a space advertising company about $65 million USD and provide the company with up to $111 million in net income. In their model, this figure could be impacted by everything from cloud coverage and current fuel costs to local population and the temperatures drawing people in or out of their homes.
Missions could be anywhere from 33 to 91 days long and involve a maximum of 24 image demonstrations. This means a single image demonstration would cost ad clients anywhere from $2.7 to $7.3 million each. Considering large companies regularly spend upwards of $5 million on 30-second television ads during major sporting events, this isn’t undoable—not to mention the priceless bragging rights associated with having marketed something in space.
But just because something is physically and financially feasible doesn’t mean it’s automatically worthwhile. There isn’t much we can do these days without being inundated with marketing material, subtle or otherwise. Some of us would like to spend a day at the beach or walk around our neighborhoods without, say, the newest Coca-Cola ad campaign overhead. Not only that, but “ad fatigue” is so prevalent these days that it’s frequently discussed among marketing professionals as something to work around.
There’s also light pollution to consider. Not only is light pollution unappealing to many and damaging to astronomical research, but it also presents ecological concerns such as disturbed wildlife migration, altered avian behavior, and decreased health among certain aquatic species. Some scientists even worry it’s affecting humans’ sleep and stress levels. In a press release from Skoltech, the researchers defended themselves against these concerns, saying their hypothetical space ads would only function during dusk and dawn. They’d also apparently be used exclusively in “large cities that are already exposed to permanent light pollution.” Great.