Imagine looking up into the night sky, only to see an ad for fast food or car insurance. That nightmarish future may be closer than you think, thanks to a Russian company’s pursuit of orbiting billboards.
Communication Revolution or Dystopian Nightmare
Early this year, StartRocket–a Russian start-up–announced that they planned to launch groups of CubeSats into low-Earth orbit. These mini satellites would create logos or brand names in the sky. While most people realized this was a terrible idea straight out of the neon-soaked cities of Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, at least one major company was intrigued.
PepsiCo initially partnered with StartRocket to launch an ad for an energy drink. A PepsiCo spokesperson stated that,”[o]rbital billboards are the revolution on the market of communications.”
Funnily enough, after the story broke and the public reacted with horror, PepsiCo was no longer so keen to link their name with the Russian start-up. Now, they claim that they only teamed up once on an exploratory test for “stratosphere advertisements.”
“This was a one-time event; we have no further plans to test or commercially use this technology at this time,” a different spokesperson clarified to Gizmodo.
How Would Orbiting Billboards Work?
The idea behind the technology is that a grid of CubeSats could use a series of reflective Mylar panels to spell out words or even create simple logos. These panels would capture sunlight and reflect it back to Earth, making the CubeSats appear to light up.
These arrays would take up about 19 square miles of real estate in the sky. And they would be able to change position at will, as well as circle the entire globe in its low-Earth orbit.
Right now, there are no laws limiting whether you can spell out messages in the sky. And, thanks to the payload capabilities of rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy–which is stuffed with CubeSats for a variety of private companies and researchers alike–it’s entirely possible to launch orbiting billboards into space.
One argument against the plan–aside from the natural horror of energy drink ads blotting out the constellations–is that the stratosphere is already basically a junkyard. There’s a surprising amount of debris up there. Plus, the size of the array could mess up GPS signals and communication satellites.
Haters Gonna Hate
The question now is whether a company will actually go through with it. Astronomer John Barentine told Astronomy that it’s only a matter of time. “I think it is inevitable that someone will do this,” he said. “They will take the gamble that even a negative public reaction will still benefit the bottom line.”
Despite his cynical outlook, he and other astronomers will continue to “be advocates for a night sky that is free of this kind of activity and remains as accessible to all humanity as possible.”
Although StartRocket hasn’t currently mastered the art of orbiting billboards, they hope to get it right by 2021. Despite the outcry, the company plans to move forward. StartRocket spokesman Alex Skorupsky claimed that, “haters gonna hate. We are developing a new medium. At the advent of television no one loved ads at all.”