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Russia wants to put billboards in space. Astronomers don’t like it.

By Elizabeth Rayne
ads in space

As if we aren’t already surrounded by enough ads flashing on TV, driving by on trucks, showing off in Times Square and talking your ear off on the radio, Russian company StartRocket is looking to put them in space. For real.

StartRocket wants to use Cubesats to plaster the night sky with ads that could be floating around as soon as 2021. Astronomers are not having it. Glowing ads up there would only add to the increasing problem of light pollution and make it even more difficult to study objects in space that could actually tell us something other than which car insurance company has the lowest rates or how long a super sale on mattresses will be going on.

Apparently, to some, the sky is just a blank canvas that could potentially rain down profits. Cubesats already would save StartRocket money because they are inexpensive to launch. Flying up to 280 miles above Earth, these mini satellites would unfurl 30-foot mylar sails and come together into one pixelated billboard with almost 20 square miles of space that can be seen from land. The company prefers to call them Orbital Displays instead of, you know, space ads, which does sound cooler but doesn't change the possibility of a monster Geico Gecko hovering over your head.

While Orbital Displays would not be bright enough for you to need to wear sunglasses at night, they would still be visible on clear nights. At magnitude -8, that isn’t much compared to the sun, which blazes at magnitude -27, and is dimmer than magnitude -17 moonlight. They would make themselves visible by catching and reflecting sunlight, which would make them visible in both morning and evening twilight, and would last a year. At least TV ads are over in about 15 seconds.

Advertising isn’t the only use StartRocket envisions for its Orbital Displays. They could be used for entertainment, though it is a stretch to imagine space displays going on during large-scale events that are already showy enough. Would you rather watch an actual Olympic opening ceremony, or stare upwards during the whole thing? The most reasonable use StartRocket has thought of is for global emergencies during which the power fails and there is zero visibility, except being able to see something when there is zero visibility is an oxymoron.

Even if everyone would miraculously be able to see an emergency message in space when the world is in crisis, how fast could it be deployed, especially with zero power?

There are already enough objects floating in microgravity, if you ask most astronomers. The clutter of satellites and less useful things in space keeps making it more and more frustrating to study things of actual scientific interest. Never mind the flood of light pollution. The Dark Sky Association, which advocates keeping the sky dark at night (whoever thought we’d get to this point?) tweeted:

StartRocket may never make space ads a thing and could just be using the idea as a marketing ploy to attract investors. A message to the brains behind Orbital Displays: if you are going to go ahead with these things, please don’t make them animated.

(via Universe Today)

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