Advertising, in all its forms, surrounds us; but we can at least hope that the night sky remains free of it. Apparently not. Certain startups like StartRocket hope to paint the sky with giant ads. Is the constellation threatened by promotional material?

StartRocket

“The Orbital Display in action” is the title of Russian startup StartRocket’s video which went live in January 2019. Dynamic music accompanies a gracious deployment of satellites in orbit and reveals what StartRocket has been keeping out of sight; that tomorrow’s brands could illuminate the sky. In this video McDonald’s and KFC create a new sponsored constellation. Next to that, skytyping and its aerial messages can pack its bags.

Be it announcement, emergency message or an invite to an event; these space messages are created by a swarm of small cubic satellites called CubeSats who are situated in low orbit, between 400 and 500 km of altitude.  Each one is equipped with a reflective canvas of about nine metres in diameter. To create the words or the logos, the canvases open to reflect sunlight and show messages that can be seen from any part of the globe. Speaking to Wired, StartRocket’s CEO admitted that “tracking the satellites and controlling their movements will be serious challenges.”

Crédits : StartRocket

Disco-ball inspired

The “Humanity Star” satellite from the Californian Aerospace company Rocket Lab — who was put into orbit almost a year ago — is what inspired StartRocket’s work. The idea behind their 65 sided ball was to serve as a bearing for humanity. Peter Beck, the private company’s founder, said in an interview that “wherever you are in the world and whatever is happening in your life, you will all be able to see Humanity Star shining in the night sky.” Humanity Star rotated around the world for two months before it turned off, burning itself up on its way to Earth through the atmosphere.

Admiring the audacity of the project, Vlad Sitnikov’s brain began hatching a plan. “What if we created a new type of media in the sky?” he asked himself enthusiastically. Thus, StartRocket was born in May 2018.

Precedent

The advertising world is always looking for news spaces. The virtual and terrestrial world is becoming increasingly saturated and so the sky looms big, empty, and attractive. Some, like StartRocket, are aiming for orbit. This idea is not recent. France, in 1987, thought about celebrating the birthdays of both the Eiffel Tower and the French Revolution with a project that will ring a bell: a “Ring of light”, made up of satellites in orbit that reflect the sun’s rays. More recently ALE, a Japanese startup based in Tokyo, announced that they want to send satellites into orbit who could trigger shooting star showers by 2020.

But without necessarily going beyond our atmosphere, won’t we soon have advertisement boards floating around in our streets? This is true without a doubt for Gizmodo who thinks that the future belongs to flying ads. The ideas are numerous. There are advertising clouds, like these foam logos filled with helium that are made by Cloudvertise. There is also Madison, an publicity drone made by Drone Aviary — a prototype of the Anglo-Indian prospective design company Superflux — and who can “swoop, scan and hunt consumer demographics” by using facial recognition. Gizmodo leaves room for Skye Aero, a 3 metres wide balloon filled with helium that uses small propellers for direction. With Skye Aero, the Swiss company Aerotain hopes to showcase ads to pedestrians.

Just like StartRocket these companies see the sky (and beyond) as a playground filled with possibilities. But this new trend is not to everyone’s taste and particularly worries astronomers. Indeed, the increase in event-driven satellites boosts various pollution and the risk of collision.  

Collisions

StartRocket plans on putting its satellites in low terrestrial orbit, meaning anywhere up to 2000 km of altitude. It is in this zone that we also find spatial stations like the International Space Station, telecommunication and other teledetection satellites. For John Crassidis, aerospatial and mechanical engineering professor at Buffalo University, there is no doubt; “putting more satellites up there is going to cause more opportunities for collisions, and we don’t want that happening,” he said to NBC News a few days after StartRocket presented their project. “My biggest issue is that these objects are going to become space junk.”  

Crédits : Phys.org

United Nations report that there is as of now 1,400 working satellites floating above our heads. For every one of those, there is an astronomically large quantity of space junk which we have created. The United States Space Surveillance Network are following around 40,000 items, but the worrying thing is that these rotating objects represent a collision danger for operational satellites.

According to the National Centre of Spatial Studies (Cnes), there are  30,000 objects in orbit of more than 10 cm, 750,000 objects of more than 1 cm and 135 million objects of more than 1 mm. This collection of zeros makes our heads spin, but also it has encouraged spatial agencies to start making efforts.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is now co-funding a cleaning mechanism named RemoveDebris. It belongs to a new generation of space trailers which brings space junk out of orbit to make them fall towards the Earth. Put in orbit on the 22nd of June 2018, its mission is to test three different techniques of catching debris (net, harpoon, or optical navigation system). In September 2018, during an experiment, it succeeded in lassoing a satellite in low orbital gravity. The ESA has surmounted the challenge that space junk represents and estimates that it will be able to organise a first operational mission around 2023. It is these types of missions that John Crassidis thinks projects like StartRocket will reduce to nothing.

Luminous Parasites

In other words, these spatial ads represent a threat in light pollution, which is one of the biggest enemies of astronomers. This document from the International Astronomical Union, presented by the United Nations in December 2001, already insisted that even if observatories were built in isolated regions deprived of all light pollution, the sky would still be full of parasites. We read in the report that “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. 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.” and it hinders observation.

To involuntary light pollution are added projects that visibly do not care for their impact, like those of StartRocket and ALE. We can also add China to this grouping with their artificial moon that will replace street lighting. The ideas for illuminating our orbit are many, to the despair of astronomers and nocturnal fauna defenders.

For Sitnikov, this is precisely the reason why his bright logos will only be visible for six minutes, in populated areas, and that they will be able to be turned off momentarily so as not to conceal “something big”.

No International Ban

Vlad Sitnikov already declared to NBC News that he wants to have a volley of tests at the start of 2020 and that he could start broadcasting ads the following year.  He added that such a way of advertising followed a natural progression and that the criticism that his project had received was the same that advertisement had first garnered when it was introduced to TV.

Nothing as of yet has come out about which rocket will be used to launch the satellites into space and how much a brand will have to spend to admire itself in space. Interviewed by Futurism, lawyer Randy Segal who specialises in spatial and satellite law stays formal: this project can become reality, but will it be authorised by worldwide regulators?

There is as of yet not international ban concerning space advertising. The U.S. are the only country that have banned space advertising at a national level if it can be seen on Earth. So for Randy Segal, the appearance of space billboards is up for ‘discussion’. But for how long?

Author : Malaurie Chokoualé