Russian Start-up Plans Massive Space Billboards to Beam Ads to Earth, Dismisses Astronomer Concerns: 'Haters Gonna Hate'

A Russian start-up wants to put advertizing billboards in orbit around the Earth. iStock

As if advertizing wasn't already ubiquitous enough in our everyday lives, a Russian start-up has now come up with a plan to put giant ad billboards in space that will be visible to people on Earth.

To achieve this, the company, StartRocket, has proposed using a formation of tiny satellites known as "CubeSats," which will orbit the Earth at an altitude of around 280 miles. Each of these will unfurl a sail made of Mylar—a type of plastic—measuring around 30 feet in diameter that reflects light from the Sun, essentially creating a single "pixel," Astronomy Magazine reported.

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Many of these "pixels" combined creates an "Orbital Display" with a viewable area of 50 square kilometers that could be arranged to show advertisements or other messages, such government alerts, to a "potential audience of 7 billion people," according to the company.

The company's CEO, Vladilen Sitnikov—who described the Display as a "crazy idea"—said that it was "human nature" to advertise everything.

"Brands [are] a beautiful part of humankind," he said.

In fact, this theme seems to crop up frequently in the company's marketing. A statement on the StartRocket website reads: "Space has to be beautiful. With the best brands our sky will amaze us every night."

Sitnikov said the company had developed a prototype in collaboration with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, which could be ready for a test launch as early as next year.

However, a number of things remain unclear, namely, whether the technology actually works, whether the company has sufficient funding and whether the plan would be allowed by international advertisers (there are currently no specific laws preventing it), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

In addition, astronomers have criticized the plans for several reasons. According to astronomer Patrick Seitzer from the University of Michigan there are several technical issues with regards to keeping the CubeSats in formation, although the company says these have been addressed.

"Active propulsion will be necessary," Seitzer told Astronomy Magazine. "The large Mylar sails will be effective as drag sails, and thus the CubeSats will decay from orbit in a short time. Thus, one has to constantly replenish the constellation."

He also noted that the display would only be visible when the sails reflect sunlight and the viewer is in darkness—in the evenings and early morning for instance.

The orbital display in action from Vlad Sitnikov on Vimeo.

"You'll never see them at midnight, for example," he said. "Depending on the orbit chosen, they might be visible for a few days, and then not visible for a week or more."

Furthermore, the CubeSats will cause light pollution—which can affect human mental health, as well as the behavior of animals and plants—and could interfere with astronomical observations on the ground.

"It's a threat to the ability to do astronomical research from the ground," astronomer John Barentine, from the International Dark-Sky Association, told Astronomy Magazine. "Every one of those moving blips of light in the night sky is something that can interfere with our ability to collect photons from astronomical sources."

And to top it all off the CubeSats will only add to the growing problem of space debris, especially because they are not designed to last very long.

"Launching projects like this with no commercial, scientific, or national security value seems unwise," Seitzer said. "Space is getting increasingly crowded. There are over 20,000 objects with orbits in the official public catalog maintained by the U.S. Air Force. Less than 10 percent of those objects are active satellites—the rest are dead satellites, old rocket bodies and parts of spacecraft."

The company, however, does not appear to seem too fazed by the criticisms.

"If you ask about advertising and entertainment in general—haters gonna hate," Alexey Skorupsky, another member of the StartRocket team, told ABC. "We are developing a new medium. At the advent of television no one loved ads at all."