Space Advertising Might Be Commercially Viable (and Space Enthusiasts Hate It)

A recent feasibility study indicates that sending satellites into orbit to display advertising over major cities might be commercially viable. The study cites increasingly inexpensive launch services.

Shamil Biktimirov, a PhD student at Skoltech Space Center, coauthored the study titled “Satellite Formation Flying for Space Advertising: From Technically Feasible to Economically Viable.” The paper describes a sun-synchronous orbit optimized for advertising over major cities. It listed the city’s population, outdoor advertising cost, and parameters limiting the number of potential advertising observations as likely variables impacting the monetization of the advertising satellites. An advertising constellation’s useful lifetime was also an important variable, since reconfiguring it for a new ad would cost fuel.

The study indicated that the satellite formations could be made visible with reflected sunlight. New advertising formations could be sent up for a cost per mission of $65 million.

Idea is Controversial Among Space Enthusiasts and Scientists

Reaction to the idea of “space advertising” was strongly negative among space enthusiasts and scientists due to the likely addition of useless satellites in orbit. Most satellites sent into orbit provide important services like valuable data that improve the accuracy of weather reports. If you have a TV subscription, it’s likely to be delivered to your home through a dish that can pull its signal from satellites. Modern navigation and geolocation devices would be useless without GPS satellites. SpaceX’s Starlink, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are all busy getting Internet-providing satellites into space (and occasionally stepping on each other’s toes as they compete to reach customers who otherwise wouldn’t have convenient access to reliable high-speed Internet).

Even with these important satellites, space enthusiasts frequently complain about the “space junk” problem. When a satellite stops functioning, it’s not easy to get it to deorbit, so it can spend years as a useless hunk of metal in orbit before it finally burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. (There are people working on that problem, but they still have to deal with the expense involved in doing anything in space.)

If Earth orbit gets too crowded, it increases the risk that two objects will collide in the same way that the risk of one car crashing into another increases when a stretch of road gets busier. Inactive satellites can’t be controlled, so they could have the same effect on active satellites as a driver who loses control of his vehicle could have on other cars.

The International Space Station partners had to use a little of the ISS’s onboard fuel to avoid collisions with “space junk” like old Russian rocket stages that haven’t reentered yet. OneWeb complained about an alleged close call between one of its satellites and a Starlink satellite, though SpaceX denies that it was as close as OneWeb claimed.

Biktimirov claimed that the satellites could be designed to start descending to the point where they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere in as little as three months. However, they could still leave behind debris that threatens other active satellites. Even a bullet-sized piece of metal could do considerable damage when it’s moving at 17,500 miles per hour – about as fast as the International Space Station moves in its orbit.

The potential effects of a collision between satellites were sped up and dramatized for the movie Gravity. However, “left derelict in orbits with long lifetimes, every single object becomes a potential ‘bullet’ that threatens every other object in similar orbits. Any one might set off a catastrophic cascade of debris generation,” said John Barentine of Dark Sky Consulting, a company based in Tucson, Arizona.

University of Buffalo Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor John Crassidis was equally unconvinced that a company that monetizes “space advertising” satellites would do the right thing without some oversight: “Until there is a mandate to immediately remove the satellites once their formation is no longer maintained, then they will be a problem.”

Additional satellites can also add to the light pollution program, especially when they rely on reflected light to do their jobs like Biktimirov’s proposed advertising satellites would. Imagine you’re a scientist who is trying to get some good readings with a ground-based telescope and your data is getting messed up by an advertisement for Coca-Cola. That would definitely not make you more inclined to drink Coca-Cola because it’s messing with that paper you want to get published and your career, right?

Some Redditors seemed to think so. Reactions to the idea of satellites that can display advertising from orbit ranged from “I will look down on and boycott any company that puts advertisements in space,” to “If I see an ad in the night sky, I will let my dog shit in that company’s stores.”

What Can We Do About It?

Space advertising might still happen despite the negative reactions. Some companies might only see the potential for millions of dollars’ worth of advertising revenue by having ads hovering over big cities and not care about the backlash from the space and astronomy community at all.

That means it might be worth finding ways to drain advertising budgets if possible – even if it means a bit of a nuisance and a bunch of people working together at once. The Coin App recently added effective radio ads to its mobile app. Basically, earn points that you might eventually be able to redeem for crypto by listening to those ads – only you don’t necessarily need to listen to them. You can just have it yapping to itself in another room while you go take a shower or cook dinner or whatever. It gets big corporations who might otherwise spend the money on “space advertising” to waste it on a little mobile app instead.

You could also have an effect by sharing online stuff you like. I’ve had a little luck sharing links to cool or funny blog entries, news articles, and videos on social media. Yes, Facebook and Reddit do suck and you might be worried about Elon Musk taking over Twitter. However, they still get traffic and have members who might see your stuff.

Companies have to pay for views on their ads in most cases and Forbes once wrote that paying for eyeballs on screens can be a colossal waste of money. A Coca-Cola executive backed that up by saying that a Super Bowl commercial “didn’t sell a single bottle of Coke” for all that it was cool, creative, and cost millions of dollars to get it on TV. A lot of blogs depend on advertising revenue to stay alive, so you can have an effect by sharing links to stuff you like and putting more money into bloggers’ pockets and not a “space advertising” company.

Yes, SpaceX Went There

Space advertising can and should be nipped in the bud if possible. Think it won’t happen? Think again. SpaceX already launched a small “demo” advertising satellite for Canadian engineering firm Geometric Energy Corporation (GEC) and Pointblank LLC. GEC suggested that it could get $972,000 per month by having advertisements hovering over big cities like Tokyo. This could wedge things open for annoying, intrusive, orbit-cluttering and light-polluting swarms of space advertising satellites.