Imagine enjoying a romantic night stargazing, cozying up for the evening – and you catch a perfectly timed ad for Outback Steakhouse.
That’s the vision of StartRocket, a Russian startup planning to put well-lit advertisements into outer space. According to a recent interview, StartRocket says its first client is PepsiCo.
Launching at twilight during the early morning or early evening, the ads will be on cubesats – 10 cm square metallic boxes traditionally used in space. The attached Mylar sails will reflect light from the rising or setting sun, making the ad appear like an “orbital billboard.”
The advertisements will need all the solar power they can get: According to a 2016 report, 80 percent of the world and 99 percent of America and Europe experience light pollution at night. Showing advertisements in, say, Wyoming will be much easier than attracting attention in Midtown Manhattan – and risks adding a considerable amount of light pollution to an already overburdened night sky.
The StartRocket advertising program is set to begin in 2021. The most recent rate is $20,000 for eight hours of advertising space.
But first, StartRocket has to win over consumers, regulators and space activists.
“I don’t see it taking off now,” says TED Fellow and University of Texas, Austin Associate Professor Dr. Moriba Jah. Jah is the creator of Astriagraph, an interactive tool to help monitor space junk orbiting Earth. “In general, the space community is anathema to advertisements from orbit to people on the ground… The global astronomy community will be fighting it tooth and nail.”
Jah notes SpaceX’s launch of 60 satellites last month. “Astronomers were up in arms since they are so bright, you can see them with the naked eye.” It got to the point where Elon Musk had to defend himself to the astronomy community on Twitter.
Startups come and go, especially those that are looking for funding. StartRocket is in both categories. Frankly, it’s unclear if the ads will actually launch two years from now.
The regulatory hurdles are just as unknown. According to Jah, countries have sovereignty over their airspace (think planes, balloons and drones), but the night sky itself is pretty much an open field. This doesn’t remove the political ramifications, though, and any American-based launches would have to contend with the FCC, since it regulates advertisements, and the FAA, since it regulates flight.
Carbon credits-style redemptions may help balance out the potential environmental and political damage done by sky ads. It isn’t a coincidence that space pioneers Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson succeeded at other ventures first, giving them considerably deep pockets to survive red tape – something StartRocket’s team doesn’t have at the moment.
Space advertisements are more likely to be the future for less regulated, financially strapped areas. Depending on how ad companies negotiate with the local governments, it’s easy to picture Kolkata with an “Enjoy Coke” advertisement blaring during a Ganges sunset.
“In rural places, it would be like having another moon,” Jah says. “People would say the rich are now taking the sky away from us.”