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Block this: Using satellites to plaster ads over our skies could work, say boffins

They can't hurt us if we stay indoors

"Space: the final frontier" – not just for humanity but also marketeers, it would seem, as Russian scientists have undertaken a feasibility study on satellite-displayed advertising. They conclude that not only is it possible, but it could also turn a profit.

Dismissing ad opportunities or sponsorships tied to serious space missions, the boffins from Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology and Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology said:

What we propose to consider is a dedicated space system. A long-term space advertising mission would rely on a complex satellite system orbiting the Earth and demonstrating pixel images to observers on the ground. In this case, an advertisement appears as a constellation of bright artificial stars formed into an image that can be observed in clear night sky for several minutes.

The tl;dr of the paper – "Satellite Formation Flying for Space Advertising: From Technically Feasible to Economically Viable" – is to send up a constellation of about 50 12U-cubesats and place them in a Sun-synchronous low-Earth orbit so that they are always in direct sunlight.

Each small satellite (about 20cm x 20cm x 34.05cm and weighing around 6-8kg) would then deploy solar reflectors, bouncing that sunlight down onto consumers. These satellites could be programmed to assume certain formations – like, perish the thought, "I'm lovin' it" – that change depending on the city below and the advertiser willing to shell out for that prime real estate we know as the sky.

The scientists note that similar campaigns have been considered several times in the past, such as the Eiffel Tower centennial in 1989 or the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, but both "were to be devoted to a single event and relied on a space structure rather than on a satellite formation to display the graphics." Nowadays, SpaceX's Starlink constellation can often be spotted by the naked eye as a peculiarly uniform line of lights drifting across the night sky – the bane of astronomers everywhere.

So we know that space advertising is technically possible, and the paper provides loads of knotty equations and diagrams on the hows and whys of paraboloid diffusive reflectors, optimal orbit height, coverage, and so on.

But with space missions costing multiple millions, is it economically viable? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes, and much of the paper is dedicated to showing how. The boffins estimate, based on prior examples, the cost of manufacturing the satellites to be $48.7 million; testing, support and engineering comes in at $11.5 million; and launch itself $4.5 million – so we're looking at $65 million to have everything in place.

Since prime-time spots during major televised sporting events also cost multiple millions, the scientists seem willing to bet that the novelty of the message delivery would attract substantial cash.

"A mission demonstrating images with magnitude of individual pixels ... has the payback period of 33.7 days, while a formation operating for 91.5 days ... can perform 24 image demonstrations within the lifetime, meaning 24 potential contractors for the mission with a net income of about $111.6 million."

$111 million, over three months, and 24 displays – $4.6 million an ad. Now look at what some companies are actually willing to spend. The most expensive TV spot is during Super Bowl, where 30 seconds can cost $9 million, but Google and Amazon have each shelled out a stonking $23.5 million.

Now the sky billboard is starting to look like an ever more attractive proposition. Would such companies want to risk their reputation by making hiding indoors the only way to avoid their marketing? Arguably, they've already done much, much worse. ®

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