Imagine enjoying a romantic night stargazing, cozying up for the evening – and you catch a perfectly timed ad for Outback Steakhouse.
Countries have sovereignty over their airspace, but the night sky itself is pretty much an open field.
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.
Space advertisements are more likely to be the future for less regulated and financially strapped areas.
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."
Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.
But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."
This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.
Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.