The project of billboards in space, visible to seven billion people, is as surprising as the genesis of this story. However, scientists are less appreciative of this adventure, especially since space law does not necessarily play in their favour.
The genesis of an unusual project
Admiring the mirror ball put into orbit by Rocket Lab in January 2018, a young Russian, who is neither a scientist nor a space engineer, launched a contest on his Facebook account for ideas to do advertising in space that would be visible from Earth. Among the thousands of followers was the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow – no less – that seems to be interested in Vlad Sitnikov and, more specifically, his ambition of offering to “brands and events that govern us” a new media, to satisfy “the entertainment and publicity that are central to our concerns.” In this way messages or images could be observed in space for 1) entertainment during global events such as the Superbowl, Olympics, FIFA competitions, 2) advertising with company logos or the announcement of a brand’s special offer and 3) emergencies by governments in the event of a power failure or natural disaster, for example.
Technology serving the ephemeral
By joining the Orbital Display project team, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology has promoted the idea of using nanosatellites (cubesats) to make up the 50 km2 billboard. Installed between 400 and 500 km altitude, they will use the sun as a source of light to reflect messages, visible three or four times a day for five or six minutes… even for a week depending on the orbit chosen, as Patrick Seitzer, professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan, thinks. Initiated in May 2018, this project is expected to offer its first displays at the end of 2021, once the production site is chosen and the launch control centre designed (October 2019), the test launch carried out (January 2021) and a training program deployed (July 2021).
Difficulties of detractors to be convinced
Faced with such enthusiasm for this project, scientists have not hesitated to demonstrate their reticence by evoking the aggravation of light pollution which would interfere with their astronomical observations, increase the risk of collision with the 1400 satellites already orbiting the Earth and the increasing space debris. The young Russian entrepreneur tries to reassure by explaining that the panels, whose obsolescence is programmed for one year, will leave their orbit to burn up in the atmosphere. Unfortunately the scientific community is all the less appeased in that there is nothing legally that seems to prevent this project from being launched. There is no international law condemning space advertising, unless a country specifically prohibits it, like the United States did in 1993, as Joanne Gabrynowicz, an American expert in space law, recalls.
Couldn’t this tension between the scientific community and commercial enterprises be transformed into a partnership? Some of the money collected by one could finance the scientific work of the other…